Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

The future flag of Europe? Albania Andorra Austria Belgium Bosnia
Bulgaria Croatia Czech Republic Denmark Finland France
Germany Greece Hungary Iceland Ireland Italy
Kosovo Liechtenstein Luxembourg Macedonia Malta Monaco
Montenegro Netherlands Norway Poland Portugal Romania
San Marino Serbia Slovakia Slovenia Spain Sweden
Switzerland United Kingdom Vatican City      

A History of Europe


Before 200 B.C.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Out of the Ice
From Cave to Village
The Megalith Builders
The Minoans
The Bronze Age and the Indo-European Migration
The Mycenaeans
Go to Page Navigator

Part II

The Phoenician Pioneers
The Villanovan Culture
The Celts
Pre-Roman Britain
The Legends of the Emerald Isle


Most geography books will tell you that Europe is not so much a continent as an appendage to a super-continent called Eurasia. Indeed, the waterways between Europe and Asia are narrow, and the mountains that form the main boundary, the Urals, are only 5,000 feet high--hardly a barrier to human migration in the way that the Himalayas are. Even so, Europeans and Asians have always considered themselves separate, distinct peoples; the distances from one end of Eurasia to the other are so great that no one has ever been able to rule the whole thing (only the Mongols came close to succeeding). Thus, in the days before instantaneous communications, the mileage from East to West was nearly as effective at keeping people apart as mountains, deserts, and other natural blocks against free commerce. Europeans could trade, make treaties with, and attack the Middle East when they felt like it, but the other main centers of Old World civilization, India and China, were too far away to allow regular contact before the modern era.

At the beginning of history, Europe was a frigid territory on the northwestern edge of the Eurasian landmass, looking more like present-day Siberia than a major center of human activity. As the ice and steppes gave way to forests and fields, the continent's climate became one of the mildest around, with few of the extremes of heat and cold that occur in Africa and Asia. It also helped that there are no deserts, except along the shore of the Caspian Sea. Warm waters to the south (the Mediterranean) and the west (the north Atlantic) are a major factor in moderating the winters; compare northern Europe with Canada, which is at the same latitude but far less habitable.

Civilization as we know it began in the area where the three continents of the Old World meet; to a Babylonian, Hittite or Egyptian, Europe was not a center of culture, but a wild western frontier. It wasn't too different for the next four thousand years. The citizens of the Roman Empire thought they lived in the heart of the civilized world, but the truth was that the larger Chinese Empire counterbalanced it on the other side of Eurasia, with the secondary states of Parthia and Kushan filling in the middle. In the Middle Ages Europe was woefully behind other continents; even semi-pagan African kingdoms like Ghana and Mali were stronger and richer at this point. However, non-European civilizations did not peek too closely at the sky, or delve too deeply into the ground, lest they offend the spirits they believed were in every natural object around them; the result was that they progressed to a point, and then stopped. The Europeans, by contrast, were insatiably curious about everything, so when they invented new instruments like the telescope and the microscope, to gather knowledge for its own sake, Asia lost its lead in science. Finally in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D., Europe gained enough power and technology to pull ahead of everybody, transforming itself into the most important continent.

The last five hundred years saw European explorers, traders, missionaries and armies conquer the rest of the world. European settlers moved into uncivilized areas, becoming the new Americans, Australians, South Africans, etc. Non-European civilizations found that modernization was the only alternative to total domination, and many of them (i.e., the Japanese) accepted a heavy dose of Western culture when they accepted the latest Western gadgets. Eventually local nationalist movements succeeded in shattering Europe's colonial empires, but no nation of the Third World has completely purged itself of the institutions brought in while the Europeans were in charge.

Most history books divide European history into four major phases or eras: ancient, classical, medieval and modern. The pervasiveness of Western civilization shows when historians refer to these time periods by habit, even if they are talking about non-Western history. The reader will find this work roughly divided the same way: Chapter 1 for prehistoric/ancient Europe, Chapters 2-5 for the classical era, Chapters 6-9 for medieval times, and Chapters 10-16 for modern Europe. In most cases various cultural elements are used to define each era, like how much Greek art is in circulation, and whether feudalism is in force. In addition, the author has found that looking for what Western civilization emphasized in each time period works quite well. The classical world of Greece and Rome produced beautiful masterpieces, and literature that is still read in today's colleges, but the ancients were not interested in machinery; they did not see a need for labor-saving devices because they had enough animals and slaves to provide whatever muscle power they needed. The medieval world was just the opposite; it gave us tedious literature, and crude, two-dimensional paintings, but medieval man invented machines to make his life easier; Chapters 7, 8 and 9 end with discussions on the effect of those inventions. With the Renaissance we see the emergence of a culture that was willing to dabble in both great art and improved tools, and that may help to explain why Western civilization did so well against older, more impressive rivals.

Another factor that eventually worked in Europe's favor was the idea of limited government. In fact, most of the political systems we use today, like republicanism, democracy and communism, are of European origin. Oh sure, Europe had its share of absolute monarchies (there are several in Chapter 11), but the monarchs were never god-kings in the sense that the Egyptian pharaohs were. A king claiming "divine right" could call himself God's chief agent on earth, but anyone who claimed to be God incarnate set up an institution that did not last very long. No European tribe or nation allowed its kings to run everything by themselves; the primitive ones gave the king a council of advisors, while the advanced ones produced a legislative body. Often these organizations were not allowed to do anything important, but their constant presence suggests that deep down, even the most oppressive dictator felt the need to court the people's will, if only to make his own rule look legitimate. The political experiments of classical Athens, the Roman Republic, and nineteenth-century England revealed that people work best if the state does not coerce them; when the power of the man on top loosened, society became correspondingly more efficient, producing more wealth, more art/literature, and more scientific research.

Another effect of limited government was stability in the long run, if not the short run. Though European history is full of petty wars, the nations it produced were more enduring than those of the non-Western world. Of the forty-four nations that make up present-day Europe, twenty-one of them already existed in 1500 A.D., in recognizable form. Compare this to Asia, where despotism was the norm and there were fewer political entities that we can associate with today's nation-states; most Eastern nations rose and fell with the governments that ruled them.

European history is extensively recorded, more so than that of any other continent. Because of that, I don't consider this work completed; in fact, I added a section to Chapter 9 while I was composing this introduction. I will probably continue editing these history papers for as long as I can handle a keyboard and a mouse, so if you don't see a topic you'd like to know more about, come back later and you may see it then. In the meantime, happy reading!

Top of the page

Out of the Ice

When the first Europeans moved in, they found a continent that was very different from the Europe of today. The reason for this was the Ice Age; at some early date, before 3000 B.C., the climate suddenly cooled, and one third of the earth's surface was covered by ice sheets and glaciers like the ones that now cover Greenland. One of these ice sheets covered Scandinavia, northern Russia, and most of the British Isles. The cold weather reduced evaporation, and the ice blocked the flow of rivers northward to the Arctic; as a result, the Black, Caspian and Aral seas were all fresh water lakes, and much larger than they are today. There was also a river flowing from the Aral to the Caspian that no longer exists, and a wide estuary stretched across the part of southern Russian that we call the Kuban, linking the Caspian to the Black Sea via the Sea of Azov. At the same time the diversion of so much water into the icecaps lowered the level of the oceans dramatically--300 feet or more. As a result, Europe's geography was altered more than that of any other continent; only a river flowed out of the Black Sea where the Bosporus and Dardanelles exist today, and some believe that even the Strait of Gibraltar was left high and dry, a natural wall connecting Europe and Africa that turned the Mediterranean into an oversized stagnant pond.(1) Likewise Great Britain and Ireland were both joined to France, and when the glaciers melted the English Channel came in to separate them--until the digging of the Channel Tunnel in our own time, anyway.

The first men who entered this setting were stone age hunters who lived by chasing the great Ice Age animals: mammoths, wooly rhinos, cave bears, bison and reindeer. Bones, tools and burial mounds from these "cavemen" have been found over the last two centuries to show what kind of lifestyle they followed.(2) Most impressive are the cave paintings found in France and Spain. We already know from the styles of burial practiced that they believed in life after death, and the paintings likewise appear to have been used in some form of ritual magic; the artist believed that if he painted a certain animal realistically enough, he would gain control over it. The paintings were not put in a place for all to see, like we do in an art gallery; on the contrary, they were put in the deepest passages of the cave they could find, often high on ledges that must have been very difficult to reach.(3) This suggests that the paintings were not meant to be seen in everyday life, but kept in places where they would only be viewed by people who deliberately came to see them, like those taking part in some mystical ceremony. Animals were the main subject of the prehistoric artist, but occasionally he also drew stick figures with bows and arrows, so we know that they had this weapon at an early date. Various stone phalluses and statues of naked women (called "Venuses") have also been found, suggesting either stone-age pornography or a fertility-oriented religion.(4)

Top of the page

From Cave to Village

The Ice Age ended with the melting of the glaciers and the subsequent alteration of European geography to what we are familiar with today.(5) There was a transitional stage, when the retreating glaciers left more than half of today's North Sea as dry land. Scientists have recently given the name "Doggerland" to the North Sea's continental shelf, naming it after Dogger Bank, a glacial moraine located in the middle of it. We know that stone age man used to live there, because his artifacts have been turning up in fishing nets since the 1930s, but only since 2000 has the scientific community taken interest in this "European Atlantis." It now appears that during its brief existence, Doggerland was one of the most hospitable places in Europe, home to tens of thousands of people before the rising Atlantic submerged it. A thick layer of sand along the east coast of Scotland is seen as evidence of a huge tsunami that took place around the same time, so the drowning of Doggerland could have been a sudden, catastrophic event. Let the record show that the 2016 "Brexit" vote was not the first, nor the most dramatic time, that Britain left the Continent.

As the world warmed up, most of the big game became extinct, and man's lifestyle changed accordingly. Anthropologists call this the Mesolithic era, or Middle Stone Age, to distinguish it from the Paleolithic ("Old Stone Age") and Neolithic ("New Stone Age") eras. They also usually see the Mesolithic age as "impoverished," because it did not produce any artifacts as impressive as the cave art of the previous era; the hunting was less exciting, too. But while the mammoths may have been gone, there were still deer, rabbits, boars and aurochs (giant oxen) to be had, and post-Ice Age man could also make ends meet by fishing, or by gathering nuts, berries and snails. This period did not last long before the invention of agriculture and pottery; both may have been learned from the developing communities in the Middle East. The first crops raised in what we call "the Neolithic revolution," wheat and barley, were native to the Middle East, and so were livestock like sheep, pigs and goats.

Despite the name we give it, the Neolithic revolution was not a sudden event. Europeans practiced a mixture of hunting, gathering and farming until the beginning of the classical era, when their cities grew so large that only agriculture could feed everyone. The first farmers also left evidence that they knew how to make fermented drinks, leading us to wonder whether the most important product of their grain was bread or beer.

But the lifestyle of the caveman was healthier, as any "paleo-diet" fan is likely to tell you. The farmer or city-dweller did not have as much variety in his diet as the nomad did, and his crops were vulnerable to disease and drought; unlike the hunter-gatherer, he couldn't simply move somewhere else to escape the consequences of a bad harvest. Worse, the crops he chose for staples did not have all the nutrients essential for a healthy life; because he ate the same foods all year round, he became susceptible to deficiency-caused diseases like rickets and scurvy. And because his diet was higher in carbs and lower in protein than that of the hunter, he was more likely to become overweight, with all the health problems that caused. Moreover, close contact with livestock allowed the transfer of viruses like measles, smallpox and influenza. Finally, overcrowding and poor sanitation in the cities encouraged still more diseases, and attracted vermin like rats and cockroaches. Studies of the bones in prehistoric cemeteries around the world show first an increase, then a decline in the average person's height and lifespan, once intensive agriculture and animal husbandry become firmly established. Prehistoric skeletons from Greece and Turkey show a generous average height--5’ 9" for men, 5’ 5" for women. But after they switched to agriculture, their height dropped to as low as 5’ 3" for men, and 5’ for women; even today's Greeks and Turks have not regained the stature of their oldest ancestors. As for life expectancy, it finally bottomed out between 34 and 38, where it remained for most of the Bronze and Iron ages; in those days many people must have felt lucky if they lived to see their children grow up. One could argue that the Mesolithic European was better off than many citizens of today's Third World, or even better off than the "urban poor" of our more advanced nations.(6)

People who live by hunting and gathering need an awful lot of land to seek their game in; in temperate/tropical climates such a lifestyle requires ten square miles per person, and in the tundra of Ice Age Europe, it could only have been worse. Consequently Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man must have been spread very thin, and the number of artifacts found suggests that there were never more than a few thousand cave men. The warming that accompanied the glacial retreat allowed groups larger than a single family; the introduction of agriculture meant these villages could stay put all year round. It also became possible to try different ways of living; the most interesting structures we have from this time are the ruins of several houses that were built over lakes in Switzerland. Some of the nearby houses on dry land were also on stilts; we don't know if this was protection against flash floods, wild beasts on the prowl, or marauders from other tribes.(7)

At some point in the fourth millennium B.C., the plow, the wheel and the use of soft metals (gold and copper) appeared.(8) We used to think of these as imports from Egypt and/or Iraq, but because we haven't found any of them in the Middle East before 3000 B.C., it now appears that ancient Europeans learned how to make them on their own. The oldest known wooden wheel turned up in Switzerland's Lake Zurich, while the earliest metallurgists made gold jewelry and copper tools near the Danube River, in places like Varna, Bulgaria and Lepenski Vir, Serbia.

Because we have no written records from this far back, any attempt to write a prehistoric "history" is largely guesswork. On such scanty evidence as two styles of pottery, it looks like the pioneer farmers formed two cultures when they left the Balkans. One style, called Cardial-ware pottery, had shell impressions in it; we find it along the shores of the Mediterranean. The other style, called Linear, had zigzag or curved incisions and appears to the north, from Hungary to France and from the Alps to the Baltic Sea. Villages where Linear pottery turns up also feature wattle-and-daub huts and wooden longhouses, architectural designs that would be found in northern European communities as late as the Middle Ages. The people in the westernmost Linear pottery villages protected themselves with wooden stockades, suggesting that they had unfriendly neighbors (Cro-Magnon hunters who refused to give up the nomadic life?).

Top of the page

The Megalith Builders

When Neolithic farmers reached the Atlantic, they started building structures of stone as well as wood. The first such monuments were barrows, burial mounds made of stones, gravel, and earth. The stones were small enough to easily handle at first, but within a few centuries they began using huge stones, called megaliths, weighing many tons. Somehow the early Europeans managed to move these stones around to create tombs, temples, and some patterns that scientists have not yet figured out. These builders are consequently known as the Megalithic people. Their works still stand in the British Isles, France, Spain, northern Germany, Scandinavia, and various islands like Malta and the Orkneys; Stonehenge is the most famous of these structures.

The burial mounds now had walls and roofs made of megaliths; when erosion removed the surrounding earth, the result was a stone table called a dolmen. The purposes of the other monuments are more difficult to figure out. The most common are individual megaliths, or menhirs. In places where menhirs stand alone, they probably served as boundary markers, but in a few places many menhirs were arranged in a line, or in a circle. At Carnac in Brittany, for instance, 3,000 menhirs formed thirteen parallel lines, sprawled across four miles of the French countryside. Such arrangements may have served as sites for performing important rituals. The largest menhir of all, at Locmariaquer (also in Brittany), once stood 67 feet tall and weighed 350 tons, before it broke into five smaller pieces. And a recent survey of the English landscape by radar showed that Stonehenge is only the tip of the iceberg; no less than seventeen other neolithic shrines were found in the area. The number of men it must have taken to move these stones (more than a hundred miles in the case of Stonehenge) and the organization involved in directing such a work gang, boggles the imagination.(9)

At one time it was thought that these monuments were built in the third and second millennia B.C., and many suggested that the construction was supervised by visiting architects from Crete or Egypt. That view changed in the 1970s, when it was discovered that the oldest living things, the bristlecone pine trees of California, yielded carbon-14 dates that were centuries younger than expected; a tree ring known to date from 2100 B.C., for example, yielded a radiocarbon date of only 1600 B.C. The carbon-dated artifacts from the Megalithic sites were compared with the tree ring data, and a whole new chronology was set up. Ancient Europe turned out to be older than we thought, with its monuments dating between 4000 and 2100 B.C.! The continent as a whole now seems to be more than the barbarian fringe that has been traditionally portrayed in textbooks. The forty stone temples on Malta and the nearby island of Gozo, for instance, are now considered older than most of the pyramids of Egypt.

Stonehenge itself was built in three stages. In the first phase, sometime between 2800 and 2100 B.C., only the large "Heel Stone" and two sighting stones were used; the main feature was a circular earth embankment, eight feet thick, six feet high, and covering an area 320 feet across. A tribe called the Beaker Folk (more about them later) raised 82 menhirs in the second phase, around 1500 B.C. A few more menhirs and an earthen avenue were added before 1100 B.C. to complete the structure. For centuries there has been speculation on how the early Britons built Stonehenge, and why. The most popular theory, proposed by American astrophysicist Gerald Hawkins in 1965, claims that it was a combination calendar and calculator, used to identify the dates when summer and winter began, and to predict when lunar eclipses will occur. However, Dr. Hawkins' measurements weren't accurate enough to convince all scholars, and older theories still abound, like the one that claims Druids performed sacrifices there. Because of that, a few modern-day Druids come to Stonehenge every year on the first day of summer, to celebrate the rising of the sun over the Heel Stone.

Stonehenge, taken during a 1999 eclipse.

Before we move on, one more discovery deserves mention, because of the excitement it has generated in recent years. In the Oetzal Alps, on the Austrian-Italian border, two mountain climbers, Helmut and Erika Simon, discovered a corpse in 1991. It was naturally freeze-dried by Alpine conditions, then covered by a glacier, to be revealed by an unusually warm summer. At first they thought the body belonged to another twentieth century climber, who died in an accident. However, when first local police, then scientists, examined the remains, they learned that he was a relic from the copper Age. Tests on the "Iceman"(10) and his equipment came up with a date between 3300 and 3200 B.C., much older than expected. His belongings included a cold-weather outfit made of long grass and leather, a well-shaped copper axe, a small flint dagger, a sickle, a toolkit for making fires and stitching clothing, and an unstrung bow with twelve incomplete arrows. A single sloe berry, presumably part of his food supply, suggested that he went into the Alps in late September. His age at death is estimated at 45-50, making him old by the standards of his time.

It is now believed that the Iceman was a shepherd from the nearby village of Remedello, driven away by some sort of catastrophe. His four broken ribs, and the unfinished state of his bow and arrows, tell us that he had to flee into the Alps after the winter snows had begun to fall on the peaks, taking whatever tools he could grab in a hurry. An x-ray revealed an arrowhead lodged beneath one shoulder, so it looks like he was murdered by those he was running away from.

The fate of the Megalithic people is uncertain; they just seem to have disappeared sometime after 2000 B.C. Nobody knows what ethnic group they belonged to; they could be an early Indo-European group, or a group preceding the Indo-European migration. If the latter is the case, the Basques could be the present-day heirs to the builders of Stonehenge.(11) At any rate, Stonehenge is an appropriate monument to mark the end of the Stone Age. The introduction of gold and copper had not changed the European way of living much, because those metals were too soft by themselves to make tools that were better than stone ones. Now the early metallurgists had discovered that an alloy of copper and tin was strong enough to make superior tools; this technological achievement began a new era, the Bronze Age.

Top of the page

The Minoans

The megalith builders were still hauling menhirs around when a fully developed civilization sprang up on Crete, a 152-mile-long, whale-shaped island. The Biblical name for Crete is Caphtor, and Genesis 10 tells us that the "Caphtorim" are descended from "Mizraim," meaning that the first settlers came from Egypt. Other possibilities include the Greek mainland, since it is closer than any other major landmass, or Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, or even Libya. In fact, they could have come from several of these places; the strong counterclockwise current of the eastern Mediterranean can grab any clumsy craft in these waters and carry it into the Aegean, where Crete would be the first significant landfall. We also don't know what they called themselves, so we use a name from Greek mythology: the Minoans, after Minos, legendary king of Crete.(12)

The excavations of the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans first brought to light this civilization, whose existence was only known from the epics of Homer and the Greek myth about the Minotaur, a monster that was half bull and half man, who devoured youths and maidens sent as tribute from Greece. Beginning in 1900, Evans unearthed the ruins of a great palace at Knossos, the dominant city in Crete after 1700 B.C. Rising at least three stories high and sprawling over nearly six acres, this "Palace of Minos," built of brick and limestone, was a maze of royal apartments, storerooms, corridors, open courtyards, and broad stairways. The main architectural feature of the palace at Knossos is red columns that are wider on top than at the bottom; this unusual style may have originated in the custom of using whole tree trunks for pillars, which were planted upside down to keep them from taking root again. Furnished with running water, the palace had a sanitation system that surpassed anything constructed in Europe until Roman times, including the oldest known flush toilet. Walls were painted with elaborate frescoes in which the Minoans appear as happy, peaceful people with a pronounced liking for dancing, festivals, and athletic contests. Early visitors must have gotten lost in this chaotic asymmetrical structure, and that may be the origin of the Greek myth about the Labyrinth.

Wherever they came from, the first settlers must have found farming difficult. The soil is rocky; the terrain is a wild place of limestone peaks and hills, separated by tangled gorges. Rivers on Crete are too small to provide much water for irrigation, and do not have a large flood plain to grow crops on. Sunlight and light rainfalls are reliable enough, though, so some agriculture would be possible from the start. And though the space for grain crops like wheat and barley was definitely limited, the island was a perfect place for growing grapes and olives, so wine and olive oil became the main exports.

The Minoans soon learned that the sea around them, which other civilizations feared, was in fact their best friend. Since nobody else in those days liked to sail out of the comforting sight of land, the sea served as a more effective deterrent to enemies than any manmade fortification. Throughout the age of Cretan civilization the Minoans never had to build walls around their cities; the sea was their protective wall.

The sea was not only a wall, but also a highway for the Minoans. Once they became skilled at building ships, they launched the world's first merchant marine. They established colonies on the nearest islands of the Aegean--the Cyclades--and during Egypt's First Intermediate Period (about 2000 B.C.) they began making regular trips to Egypt and Syria. They may have even sailed as far as Sicily--Greek mythology says that Minos was killed on a military expedition to that island. From the Middle East they learned bronze making, from Egypt how to make stone vases. Their profits from such trade and crafts allowed them to build fine harbors, aqueducts and palaces; around 1700 B.C. they began construction on the palace at Knossos.

The Minoans were confident about sailing because their ships were the most seaworthy of the age. Pictures of them, on wall paintings and seals, depict galleys with high prows, low sterns, rounded hulls, and a single square sail. Some are shown with a small deck cabin and a large oar in the stern for steering. When there was no wind, up to twenty-five oarsmen on each side kept the ships moving. The high prows turned aside waves, the heavy construction kept it from breaking up in all but the worst storms, and deep keels provided stability. Even the haughty Egyptians had to admire the skill of the Minoans--an Egyptian tomb painting shows a group of dignified Minoans, called Keftiu, bringing gifts to Pharaoh Thutmose III. It is possible that the pharaohs even hired the Keftiu as brokers, using Minoan ships to bring Lebanese cedar to Egypt. Of all foreigners, only the Minoans were honored with a special name; other non-Egyptians were usually called Ha-Unebu ("people from beyond the seas"), or "barbarians who are an abomination to God."

To keep track of their commerce, the Minoans employed an efficient bureaucratic government, whose administrative records were written on clay tablets, first in a form of picture writing resembling Egyptian hieroglyphics; then after 1700 B.C. they used a syllabic script known as Linear A. Because we have deciphered neither script, our knowledge of Minoan civilization is scanty and imprecise; most of it is derived from those wall murals.

Perhaps because of their isolation, the inhabitants of Crete paid less attention to war and politics than the other peoples of their time did. They did not cover walls with scenes of pomp, or use pictures and inscriptions to record their military exploits; favorite Cretan art subjects were people at leisure or engaged in sports, and pictures of flowers, birds, fish and dolphins. Nor do we see any Minoan king raising up giant statues or mountain-sized tombs to be remembered by; they didn't even leave pictures or inscriptions of their achievements. Instead they made portraits of handsome people with long black hair, slim figures (they seem to have been obsessed with staying in shape!), and semi-naked dress--men wore little besides a loincloth or kilt, women wore flouncy, open-faced gowns that left their breasts exposed--both sexes are shown without a care. Later the Greeks thought that the Minoans invented dancing, and indeed, some murals show dancers in a mid step. Minoan art was spontaneous and full of rhythmic motion; they saw it as an essential part of everyday life, not the exclusive monopoly of religion and the state. If one can trust these pictures, the Minoans must have been the happiest people of the Bronze Age.

The women of Crete enjoyed more freedom than any other women of the age, even more than those of Egypt. The palace murals show them not as chattel or under veil, as in the Middle East, but with stylish dresses and makeup, often enjoying public festivals with the men or even taking part in athletic events.

A crowd gathers at the palace of Knossos to watch athletes somersault over bulls. This may have been a religious rite as well as a sporting event.

In Rincon de Soto, Spain, some brave souls flip over the bulls today, the way the Minoans probably did. And you thought bullfighting or running with the bulls in Pamplona was dangerous!

Homer may have exaggerated when he claimed in the Iliad that Crete had ninety cities. Nevertheless, crowds must have been commonplace, for Minoan artists often drew pictures of them. During the island's best years (1700-1200 B.C.), the island's population reached a quarter million, with 40,000 of them in Knossos. They jammed their two and three-story homes all along the narrow streets that ran from the palaces to the wharves.

Cretan society had an aristocracy of nobles, priests and priestesses on top; a middle class of artisans and clerks; a working class of farmers, herders and laborers; and serfs at the bottom. Despite their lowly status, the serfs seem to have been better off than slaves in other Bronze Age civilizations; they did not live in ghettoes or shanty-towns, for one thing. Moreover, Crete does not appear to have experienced the social unrest and upheaval that afflict most societies; if they had, the kings would not have survived it, because they had no walls to keep the masses at a safe distance. More than a thousand years later, Aristotle wrote that the serfs enjoyed all the privileges of Minoan citizens, except two: they could not bear arms or take part in gymnastic exercises (they may have seen flabbiness as a symbol of lower class living).

Whether or not they could afford a big house, Minoans lived comfortably. Sometimes they decorated their homes with flowerpots or gardens; their furniture was made of animal skins stretched over a wooden frame. Nobody used fireplaces; for cooking and housewarming they used portable braziers made of clay or bronze.

Minoans also ate better than their Egyptian and Mesopotamian contemporaries. They made their bread from wheat and barley flour, which was ground in their homes. From gardens or orchards lettuce, lentils, beans, peas, squash, plums, quinces, and figs were readily available. The sea provided octopus, clams, squid and fish. Cows and goats gave the milk used to make cheese. They drank wine most of the time, but since they grew barley, beer was common too.

Religion and politics must have been closely related; the throne room of Minos, a lovely but unimposing hall with a high-backed alabaster chair on one end of it, was the place where priestesses often performed important ceremonies. Sporting events were also considered a form of worship. Other ceremonies were small affairs conducted in caves. From the start, the bull was a sacred animal to the Minoans. Art objects featuring bulls are all over the palace; vases shaped like bull's heads were used in ceremonies; the most popular sport was a dangerous one where athletes grabbed a bull by the horns and did somersaults over it. Sometimes the king might wear a bull mask, which may be where the Greeks got the idea of the Minotaur.

What little else is known of Minoan religion also contrasts sharply with conditions in the Near East: there were no great temples, powerful priesthoods, or large cult statues of the gods. The principal deity was the Mother Goddess, which probably explains the important position held by women in Cretan society. Many statuettes show her dressed like a fashionable Cretan woman with a fancy Cretan dress and an elaborate coiffure; often she holds a snake in each hand. She was probably the prototype of later Greek goddesses like Athena, Demeter, and Aphrodite.

Sometimes the Mother Goddess appeared with a youth who may have been her son. This son seems to have been a weather god, like the Canaanite Baal, who controlled the seasonal death and rebirth of nature. Later the Greeks would equate the boy with Zeus, the king of their gods; they remembered the sacred bull and Mother Goddess of Crete as Kronos and Rhea, the parents of Zeus.

The ceremonies, sports, and sacrifices of bulls were all done to make the Mother Goddess protect them from a host of disasters: shipwreck, disease, failed crops, and especially earthquakes. Earthquakes hit the eastern Mediterranean regularly--often a big one strikes every fifty years--and whenever one happened whole towns were likely to be destroyed, with many people killed or buried alive in the rubble. The Minoans never forgot this violence for long, and they may have thought that the muffled roar of the shaking earth was the bellow of a giant bull moving the world, hence the preoccupation with bulls.

Despite their supplications, Minoan civilization literally went out with a bang. On more than one occasion, a series of earthquakes and aftershocks caused so much death and destruction that it disrupted Crete's society. Fighting broke out between Knossos and the other cities; in the end Knossos won and all the other palaces were destroyed. On the mainland, true Greeks, who called themselves Achaeans, had been civilized and taught to sail by the Minoans; now they took advantage of the situation to seize several Minoan island colonies. Then around 1160 B.C. came another natural disaster that made all others minor by comparison. About seventy miles north of Crete, the volcano on the island of Thera exploded. The explosion was so awesome that it vaporized two thirds of the island, and it sent a 200-foot-high tsunami to wipe out the cities on Crete's heavily populated north coast. It also wrecked and sank most of the Minoan fleet, leaving the island defenseless against any other naval power.(13)

Excavations have been conducted on what remains of Thera since 1967. The town they have uncovered, Akrotiri, was a Minoan colony; its art and architecture are so well preserved that the site is called "the Pompeii of the Aegean." Curiously, no skeletons or valuables (like jewelry) were found; apparently the residents were warned of disaster--possibly by the series of earthquakes that often precede an eruption--and escaped in ships with much of their personal belongings. They went wherever Minoan ships traveled, but most probably headed for the nearest mainland, Greece. This has convinced many, including this author, that the evacuation preceding the Thera eruption is the source to the Atlantis myth. When the Egyptians told Solon in the early 6th century B.C. about Atlantis, the oldest civilization they knew, they were probably talking about the Minoans.(14)

The survivors on Crete were scattered in isolated settlements. By 1100 B.C. they were conquered by the Greeks, whose navy now became the one that ruled the waves. The palace at Knossos was occupied and rebuilt; tablets written in a script called Linear B were used to keep track of inventories. The newcomers decorated their buildings and pots with a stiff geometric style, without the free expression that characterized the Minoan frescoes. An age of trading, piracy--and heroes--began.

Top of the page

The Bronze Age and the Indo-European Migration

While the Minoans were still in their heyday, the rest of Europe underwent drastic transition. Even before the Bronze Age began (2000 B.C.), a marked change took place in the megalithic burials. Previously the barrows had been communal structures, with several individuals buried in each mound. Now the typical mound became a tomb for just one person, buried with his/her favorite belongings, like polished stone axes, copper daggers, and an assortment of beads. This tells us that power and wealth were being concentrated in the hands of a few people, forming an early aristocracy.

The burials also got richer in another way-they now contained gold items, especially jewelry. Another very common item was a thin-walled cup without handles. Because of these, we often call the builders of the Bronze Age mounds the Beaker people. Other names for these folk are the Corded Ware people, Battle Axe people, Single Grave people, and Ochre Grave people, all derived from the grave goods they left.

The Indo-European migration is one of the most important events in the history of mankind. 5,000 years ago the Indo-Europeans only lived in the Caucasus mountains; after the migration they were distributed over a larger portion of the earth than any other language/racial group. However, it was also an undocumented migration; it happened so early that today's Indo-Europeans have no record--not even legends--of their ancestors' journey. Historians have resorted to archaeology and language comparison to deduce the great migration's path.

Indo-Europeans, 3500 B.C.

Indo-Europeans, 2500 B.C.

Indo-Europeans, 1500 B.C.

Indo-Europeans, 500 B.C.

Indo-Europeans, 500 A.D.

Indo-Europeans, 1500 A.D.

The Indo-European migration, shown in thousand-year-steps. A map showing movements after 1500 A.D. isn't practical, because with the Age of Exploration, Europeans discovered the rest of the world and settled most of it. Maps provided by Wikipedia.

The movement appears to have begun between 2300 and 2000 B.C. The first group or groups of wanderers learned to sail, and headed due west, to settle Anatolia and the Mediterranean basin. These seagoing pioneers became the Hittites, the Greeks, and possibly the "Mediterranean" peoples of Italy and Spain. The others stuck to land travel, and went around the Caspian Sea very slowly, in a counterclockwise direction. As they did so, individual tribes broke off from the main body, to become the Indo-Iranian ethnic groups: Medes, Persians, Kurds, Parthians, Scythians, Afghans, and the various groups now found in Pakistan and north India. The remaining tribes turned west when they reached the Russian steppe, entering Europe by way of the Ukraine. As the area they spread across grew larger, communications between the tribes failed, and individual dialects became languages. Because of that, when the Indo-Europeans finally settled down in western and central Europe, they were not one nation but many: Teutons, Celts, Slavs, Balts, and so on.

In the eastern Ukraine are several burial mounds called kurgans, dating back as far as 2000 B.C.; we call the builders the Kurgan culture. We believe the kurgans mark the Indo-European arrival in eastern Europe, but we don't know if the Cimmerians, the tribe living in the area when written records become available, are direct descendants of the kurgan-builders.

At first these tribes had to travel on foot, so their migrations were slow, perhaps just a few miles per year. Even so, in a few centuries they could migrate all the way across the steppe, going farther than the typical Egyptian or Babylonian would dream of traveling. The steppe had a rainfall high enough to support the grasses and other plant life on which herd animals feed, but not nearly enough for sedentary farming. Thus, the nomads were herders from the start, always ready to move when their animals had finished grazing the surrounding pasture, and living on a diet of that was mostly meat and dairy products. Because their footloose lifestyle could not support as many people as farming, there were never very many of them, but they had a huge portion of land, five thousand miles across, to themselves.

We may look at these nomads as poor, but they viewed themselves as free men compared to the inhabitants of civilized places. Not only had they rejected a lifestyle of laborious digging, planting and harvesting, but they came to disdain those who lived by farming. Because they always had to watch out for predators who might steal from their herds--either wild beasts like wolves or other men bent on rustling--their tribes had a warlike organization, with a chief to take command in battle and to decide where to march. Thus the steppe-dweller expected a violent life, and a few of them could generally beat a much larger group of people from a civilized country. If there was a civilization nearby, they regularly attacked it, to steal crops and to capture humans for domestication, meaning slavery. For millennia to come there would be an ongoing struggle between the farmer and the pastoralist, one having superior numbers, the other having superior fighting ability. It finally ended after 1500 A.D., when the farmers gained an insurmountable lead in technology.

The Indo-European herdsmen kept the same food animals that Middle Eastern farmers had for livestock: cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. They added to this list the horse, and thus changed the course of history. Stone age hunters were familiar with the horse, but to them it was just another meal; they caught them by driving an entire herd off a cliff. At some uncertain date, no later than 1700 B.C., the dwellers on the steppes managed to domesticate horses. Strange as it may sound to us, they got horses to pull wagons a long time before they learned how to ride on horseback. This was because the mounted warrior had to learn how to ride and fight at the same time--something which takes years of training--and because the techniques for breaking and teaching horses to carry a man had not been developed yet. Even so, the introduction of the war chariot had a devastating effect on the civilized world. The charioteer had a huge advantage over the foot soldier, creating a situation much like that between infantry and tanks in the twentieth century. Between 1700 and 1400 B.C., all the major centers of civilization (Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China) suffered invasions from raiders in chariots. Not until the victims learned how to use chariots themselves could they drive out their enemies and restore unity in their nations. By 1200 B.C. the Cimmerians were using chariots in the Ukraine, so we must assume that chariot use was introduced to Europe shortly after that.

The biggest weaknesses of chariots were that they were vulnerable to arrows (one well placed shot at a horse could overturn the whole thing), and that they were expensive to produce; building a chariot required the skills of several specialists, like horse trainers, tanners, carpenters and smiths. Consequently chariots were relatively few in number, and had to be reserved for officers. With such aristocrats leading an army, there was a tendency for them to behave with chivalrous courtesy, sometimes treating enemy charioteers better than even the foot soldiers on their own side. The invention of iron arms and armor helped to level the ground between infantrymen and charioteer elites, but what really ended the chariot's usefulness was the introduction of cavalry. Soldiers on horseback were faster than chariots, and could go in places too rugged for chariot travel. Again it appears that the nomads of the Eurasian heartland learned how to ride horses first, around 900 B.C., and their civilized opponents, especially the Assyrians, followed suit a few years later.

As with so many other things about ancient Europe, we can only speculate on what happened when the Indo-Europeans arrived. Some scholars believed they came as invaders; Marija Gimbutas thought the kurgan-builders staged four separate invasions of the west. However, no evidence has yet been found of the destruction that such a war would leave, so we must also consider the possibility that the Indo-Europeans came in peace, as traders or immigrants. If they did, they must have persuaded the non-Indo-European residents to accept their culture, and later assimilated them. Sometimes we see a similar trend in other times; the Bulgars and the Varangians, for example, were not Slavs to begin with, but within a century they were absorbed by the Slavic subjects they ruled. One sure sign of the Indo-European arrival is that in the Bronze Age villages, livestock raising became nearly as important as crop cultivation. The newcomers may also have introduced the status items we now see in the barrows, like the cups and the first bronze weapons. However they entered the continent, by the end of the Bronze Age the main Indo-European groups are recognizable and in specific locations: Teutons in Scandinavia, Celts in and around the Alps, Italians in Italy, Thraco-Illyrians in the northern Balkans, Greeks in the southern Balkans, Balts in Latvia and Lithuania, and Slavs in Poland and Belarus.

In the case of the Slavs, we believe that the first sign of their existence as a separate people is the Lusatian (Lausitz) culture, which arose in Poland between 1600 and 1300 B.C. Unlike the other ancient Europeans seen so far, the Lausitz practiced cremation; this funeral rite would spread to neighboring tribes before long. Their cemeteries contained pottery urns instead of coffins, so archaeologists call the Lusatians an "urnfield" culture. Another urnfield culture on the upper Dnieper River is also thought to be Slavic, so maybe at this early date the Slavs were beginning to split into the Western (Polish) and Eastern (Russian) Slavs, separated by Europe's largest swamp, the Pripet Marshes. In the urnfields, as in the Bronze Age barrows, the differences between rich and poor remained visible after death; many urns contained nothing but bones and ashes, and only about one burial in a hundred included weapons or good-quality vessels.

As the trade in luxury items increased, so did the demand for finely crafted metal goods. To meet this demand a powerful network of metalworking and trading arose in central Europe. As early as 1800 B.C., talented smiths in Austria, Germany, Hungary and Bohemia were producing exceptional axes, bracelets, daggers, earrings and pins. They also mined tin from Bohemia, copper from the Alps and the Balkans, and transported amber from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. We call this combination of merchants, miners and craftsmen the Únetice culture, after the modern name for one of their cemeteries near Prague. Traders carried Únetice-style merchandise as far as Scandinavia and the British Isles, and soon it inspired copycat industries in Bavaria, Switzerland, and France. The rivals that produced the best craftwork, however, were the Otomani smiths, based in northwest Romania.

The Germanic peoples, also known as the Teutons, did not learn bronze working until the Middle Bronze Age, or 1600-1200 B.C. This was probably because they were farther away; at this stage, the Teutons only lived in southern Scandinavia (Denmark plus the nearest parts of Norway and Sweden); they would not settle Germany itself until the second and first centuries B.C. They caught up quickly, though; the gold and bronze objects we have found in Scandinavian burial mounds are awesome, both in quantity and quality of workmanship. Of the 2,500 metallic grave goods recovered, one fifth are gold and the rest are bronze, causing some anthropologists to call this period a Nordic golden age. It is all the more impressive when one considers that Denmark does not have deposits of gold, copper or tin, so all the metal had to come hundreds of miles to get there. One researcher estimated that up to a quarter of a ton of bronze was needed every year, just to make the items buried in Danish mounds, and that Denmark's smiths probably used 5 to 7.5 tons annually for everything.

We have to guess at what the Nordics used to pay for all that metal. No doubt their most important commodity was amber; for millennia people have known that the shores of the Baltic Sea are the best place in the world to find this fossilized resin. As early as 1600 B.C., amber turns up in the graves of Mycenaean Greeks, telling us that the civilized world already considered it a valuable gem. When amber got popular elsewhere, it stopped appearing in Scandinavian cemeteries; this suggests that the local chiefs wanted to save all amber for export. They probably also sold slaves and furs, as other barbarians often did, but these items were too perishable to leave any trace for the archaeologist to find.

Recently it was proposed that Scandinavian women were among the items exported from northern Europe, and that the price of a bride was either peace with another tribe, or still more raw metal. The evidence for this idea comes from the fact that in central and southern Europe, Nordic-made necklaces and bracelets are more common than Nordic-made swords and axes, and Scandinavian-style graves are common in northern Germany, but non-Scandinavian graves are not common in Denmark or Sweden. Since most of these women were blondes, like their modern-day descendants, it goes to show that some aspects of human nature haven't changed!

By 1200 B.C., urnfields were turning up in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. This is not seen as evidence of a Slavic migration; instead it seems to mark the rise of a new people who adopted Slavic funeral customs. During the late Bronze Age (1200-800 B.C.), urnfields also spread to most of France. After the Iron Age began, Celts were living in all these areas, so now we cautiously identify the people of the central European urnfields as the direct ancestors of the Celts. The Ligurians, a tribe living in northwest Italy, was also probably Celtic, though they did not have urnfields.

Besides the Celtic arrival, the other interesting event of the late Bronze Age is the appearance of metal body armor. Archaeologists have found this armor in cemeteries and bogs all over Europe, and the style of manufacture is almost the same everywhere. Warrior elites must have cut a striking figure when they wore their ornate breastplates, shields, greaves, and long-horned helmets. However, all these items were made of sheet metal, hammered or cast so thin that it would not have protected the wearer as well as sturdy leather armor. They were probably worn mainly for show, like at religious ceremonies.

Whether or not the Indo-European migration was peaceful, dangerous times followed it. We already saw one sign of this in the preoccupation Bronze Age smiths had with manufacturing weapons; no doubt the warrior class wielded them with chilling effect. Another was the way that middle and late Bronze Age villages were built with defense in mind; usually earthen ditches and elaborate wooden palisades surrounded them, and natural features like hills or islands in lakes were put to use as additional protection. All this suggests a society dominated by heroic warriors, who spent their time hunting, fighting and feasting, like the larger-than-life characters of Greek, Irish and Norse legends.(15) Their activities had produced a new Europe, one more complex and quarrelsome than the Europe that existed before. Yet while they reflected a very vigorous community, they still could not be called civilized, in the sense that residents of Middle Eastern cities were civilized. Full civilization would have to wait until Europe had cities, and the average Bronze Age settlement had no more than 50 inhabitants; conditions were too chaotic to permit the growth of a village into a town. The new technology of iron working would prove to be the democratizer of weapons; because iron was more common than copper or tin, the availability of iron weapons would take away much of the power the sword-swinging aristocrats had enjoyed.

Top of the page

The Mycenaeans

Emigrants from Asia may have entered the Aegean as early as 3000 B.C. Early Bronze Age settlements in the Aegean were small communities, placed in easily-defended positions and surrounded by strong walls. This type of settlement suggests the existence of many tiny independent states ruled by chieftains inhabiting small palaces. Conditions were probably similar to those in the classical era, when the Aegean was divided into small communities which fought constantly.

Names of centers like Knossos and Tiryns seem non-Indo-European and evidently date to Early Bronze Age times.(16) The original Aegean peoples were not Greeks; they may have spoken a common language, or related languages, akin to the earliest languages known in Anatolia. Classical Greek historians like Herodotus called these people the Pelasgians, but they told us almost nothing about them. Some modern authors try to draw a connection between them and the Minoans, wondering if Philistine and Pelasgian are two names for the same people; nobody can be sure because the Minoan language remains lost to us.(17)

Invaders from various parts of Anatolia occupied many of the Cycladic islands about 2000 B.C. and settled at Lerna and other sites in the eastern Peloponnesus (the southern half of the Greek mainland). A few centuries later, invaders coming from the Balkans appear to have reached the Peloponnesus and left traces at Lerna. These northerners spoke an Indo-European language, perhaps an early form of Greek. From their relatives on the Russian steppe, they learned how to use the horse and chariot.

Signs of violent destruction attest the arrival of the newcomers near Argos, most notably at Lerna, followed by the construction of citadels at Mycenae, Pylos, Argos, and other sites. By 1400 B.C. these Greeks(18) had adopted much of the advanced culture of the Minoans; their civilization reached as far as Rhodes and was in contact with the Middle Eastern kingdoms. Mycenaean women adopted Cretan fashions and added a variety of sumptuous jewelry, from bracelets to earrings. The men remained warlike, though, and plied the seas as both pirates and traders. Battle scenes are prominent in their art, and they took their weapons with them to their graves. Homer made one of their military expeditions famous when he sang about the Trojan War.

Some of the wealth accumulated by the kings of Mycenae--the greatest single hoard of gold, silver, and ivory objects found anywhere before the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb--was unearthed in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann, fresh from his even more sensational discoveries at Troy. The treasures included golden crowns, diadems, and cups, some in raised relief; vessels of silver and alabaster; and many bronze weapons. Some of the tombs are dome-shaped and called beehive tombs or tholoi; the most monumental of them is the so-called Treasury of Atreus. Like Mycenae's Lion Gate and the palace remains, this tomb reflects the Mycenaeans' ability to organize their resources on a large scale. The kings headed an elaborate palace bureaucracy, a priest or priestess oversaw religious matters, and the work force was highly specialized and regimented. The workers lived beyond the walls of the palaces, the king and nobles within.

Called the "Mask of Agamemnon" when found by Schliemann in a Mycenaean grave, this gold mask probably belonged to a king that lived centuries earlier.

The great palaces of the mainland were enclosed in fortified citadels defended by strong walls, known as Cyclopean walls because the stones used in them were so big that later Greeks thought giants, namely the Cyclopes, put them in place. Major palaces have been excavated at Tiryns and Pylos, as well as at Mycenae. The main outpost in the Aegean was Phylakopi on Melos, where a complete Bronze Age town was excavated in the 1890s. All of the palaces centered around a great hall with a large central hearth and an entrance porch, developed from the long houses that were standard in Bronze Age Europe. This hall is called the megaron in Homer's Odyssey, in which comparable palaces are described. In front of its porch was a courtyard, with various rooms and offices clustered around it. The royal palace on the acropolis, or citadel, of Mycenae had well-proportioned audience rooms and apartments, fresco-lined walls, floors of painted stucco, and large storerooms. It is doubtful, though, that Mycenae ever became the leader of Greece, as Homer supposed; more likely each town acted on its own most of the time. A homogeneous civilization does not prove the existence of a dominant imperial city.

The expansive force of Mycenaean civilization led to the planting of colonies on the shore of Anatolia (Hittite sources call the Achaeans Ahhiyawa), and to the conquest of Crete around 1450 B.C. The latter event was made possible by the destruction of the palace at Knossos by earthquakes and a great tidal wave following a nearby volcanic eruption, as noted in the previous section. The Mycenaeans rebuilt the palace at Knossos (to be destroyed finally about 1380 B.C. by earthquake and fire), and the center of Aegean civilization shifted to the Greek mainland.

The Lion's Gate of Mycenae is a fine example of masonry in Bronze Age Greece.

This story of Achaean-Cretan relations was unclear until 1952 when a young English architect, Michael Ventris, startled the scholarly world by deciphering Linear B. Linear B was invented around 1400 B.C., and many examples of it were found by Evans at Knossos and by later archaeologists at Pylos, Mycenae, and Thebes. It turned out that Linear B was an early form of Greek written in syllabic characters, so we believe that the last rulers of Knossos (after 1450 B.C.) were Achaean Greeks, who adopted the Cretan script to write their own language. This means that the Mycenaeans were the ancestors of non-Dorian Greeks of later times, like the Athenians and Ionians. The Linear B texts do not provide any literature to answer our questions, though; they are administrative documents and inventories (banker's poetry!).

The Mycenaean settlements Homer called "cities" were really just citadels--fortified palaces and administrative centers, rather than true cities like Crete had. Most of the population lived in scattered villages where they worked either communal land or land held by nobles or kings. The nobles were under the close control of the kings, whose administrative records were kept daily by many scribes. Prominent in these records are details of the disbursement of grain and wine as wages, and the collection of taxes in kind. The most important item of income was olive oil, the major article in the wide-ranging Mycenaean trade, which was operated as a royal monopoly. Perhaps it was a desire to dominate the trade networks of the day that led the Achaean kings to launch the famous expedition against Troy, a powerful commercial rival.

The city of Troy occupied a strategic position on the Hellespont (the strait between the Aegean and the Black seas now known as the Dardanelles). Thus, Troy could command both sea traffic through the straits and land caravans going between Asia and Europe. For many years scholars thought this city existed only in the epic poems of Homer. Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90), a German romantic dreamer and amateur archaeologist, believed otherwise. As a boy, he had read the Iliad, and became convinced that Troy was a real place. At the age of forty-eight, having amassed a fortune in the California gold rush and in worldwide trade, Schliemann retired from business to put his persistent dream of ancient Troy to the test.

In 1870 Schliemann began excavating a hill called Hissarlik, on the Asian side of the Dardanelles; this was where the Greeks said Troy existed.(19) Like the tells of the Middle East, the hill contained nine buried cities, built one on top of another. He discovered a treasure of golden earrings, hairpins, and bracelets in the second city (Troy II), which led him to believe that this was the city of Homer's epics. Excavations in the 1930s, however, showed that Troy II had been destroyed about 2200 B.C., far too early to have been the scene of the Trojan War. Nowadays two younger cities, Troy VI and Troy VII, are considered better candidates for the place made famous by Homer.

Neither the view that Troy was the victim of commercial rivalry, nor the other widely held theory that it was destroyed by Achaean pirates seeking booty, corresponds to Homer's view that a love triangle caused the Trojan War. According to him, one day Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, went with his brother Menelaus to Sparta, to obtain wives. The beautiful queen of Sparta, Leda, had only daughters, so one of them, Clytemnestra, married Agamemnon, while her sister, Helen, married Menelaus. Menelaus stayed in Sparta with Helen and became king of that city. Not long after that, a Trojan prince named Paris came to visit, and when he returned to Troy he took Helen with him.(20) This was a serious matter; Menelaus was only king because he was married to Helen, so he had to get her back to save the family fortune.

Led by Agamemnon, the wrathful Achaeans besieged Troy for ten long years. Homer's Iliad deals only with a three-month period near the end of the siege.(21) Troy did not fall to armed might, but to the most famous trick in military history. A Greek officer, Odysseus, suggested leaving a great wooden horse outside the city, as a peace offering; then the Greeks withdrew. Sure enough, the Trojans opened their gates to bring in the horse, and began a citywide party to celebrate their "victory"; they ignored the prophetess Cassandra when she warned that they should run a spear through the horse to make sure there were no spies inside. That night a handful of Greek soldiers came out of the horse, opened the gates, and let in their comrades to sack the city.

Modern Trojan Horse
If you go to Turkey, you will see this replica of the Trojan Horse at Çanakkale, the nearest modern city to ancient Troy.

What caused the end of Mycenaean Greece is the most difficult question confronting scholars of pre-classical Europe. Warfare between the Mycenaean states may have led to the dissipation of wealth and military resources. In the ninth century B.C., the palaces on the mainland went up in flames, fueled by the enormous jars of olive oil stored in their basements. About the same time a new wave of Indo-Europeans, the Dorian Greeks, invaded Greece; they rode horses and used weapons made of iron instead of bronze. As in the rest of the ancient world, the first horsemen were unstoppable. Some scholars think this invasion produced the Greek myths about centaurs; an observer who didn't look too closely at the invaders might think he was seeing creatures that were half man, half horse.

First of the Mycenaean strongholds to fall was Pylos, whose Linear B archives contain references to hastily undertaken preparations to repel the invaders. We find orders directing women and children to places of safety; instructions to armorers, "rowers," and food suppliers; and a report entitled "How the watchers are guarding the coastal regions."(22) The preparations were in vain. Pylos was sacked and burned, and the destruction of the other major Mycenaean citadels soon followed. Mycenaean refugees migrated to Athens, the Cyclades, Cyprus, and to Ionia on the western coast of Asia Minor. Wherever they went, the refugees took with them a recollection of their traditions, which crystallized into the oral and epic poetry best known from Homer.

The Dorians took possession of much of the Peloponnesus, and though people lived at some Mycenaean sites for a considerable period, civilization was swept away and population decreased. They introduced new burial customs and fashions in dress, while adopting some elements of the Mycenaean civilization. The art of writing was lost, to be regained when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician script for their own use about 400 years later. This period reminds scholars of the years immediately following the fall of Rome, and is called "the dark age of Greece."

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. Those who believe the Gibraltar wall theory claim that the strait was re-flooded after the Ice Age ended. According to them, when the Atlantic rose and surged over the wall, it created the greatest waterfall the world had ever seen, until the sea level of the Mediterranean was as high as that of the Atlantic. Recent calculations have suggested that at the waterfall's peak, enough water went over it to raise the Mediterranean by more than ten meters per day, and 90% of the water could have been transferred into the basin in as little as two years.

2. "Cave man" is a misnomer. They didn't all live in caves; those on the move were perfectly capable of building tents or lean-tos out of sticks and animal skins. Unfortunately most of their artifacts were exposed to the elements and not preserved for us, so the cave-dweller gets all the credit.

3. We haven't really come that far from the cave man who could paint. Pablo Picasso, the most important artist of the twentieth century, is reported to have said after visiting the famous Lascaux cave, "We have invented nothing!"

4. The late Marija Gimbutas produced several controversial books that rewrote European prehistory, the last one being The Civilisation of the Goddess. In these, she argued that before 2000 B.C., Europeans lived in peace, worshiped a mother goddess, and enjoyed equality between the sexes. From Minoan Crete to Lepenski Vir to the barrows of the megalith builders, Gimbutas saw symbols of the mother goddess everywhere. This near-Utopia ended when the aggressive, patriarchal culture of the Indo-Europeans forced its way in from the east. Gimbutas' ideas are only now finding acceptance in the academic community, but they are popular among feminists and New Agers, who see the society Gimbutas described as similar to the one they would like to create.

5. As the level of the Mediterranean rose the Bosporus was flooded and salt water poured into the Black Sea, killing the fresh-water life it contained. The decomposed remains of these creatures poisoned the water, and today the stagnant lower layers of the Black Sea, rich in hydrogen sulfide and poor in oxygen, are devoid of life below 310 meters (1,020 ft). This is the largest lifeless body of water in the world today. Recently Robert Ballard, an underwater archaeologist, has been exploring the Black Sea, looking for the remains of ships and submerged villages which he expects will be better preserved than those found anywhere else.

6. Jared Diamond claimed in Guns, Germs and Steel that the invention of agriculture was the worst mistake in history. Not only were people left malnourished and disease-ridden, food could now be stockpiled, allowing some people to do things besides looking for food. These people used their spare time to invent deadlier weapons, soldiers, warfare, class divisions between those who had stored food and those who did not, and inequality between the sexes. A few other politically correct historians have echoed the same sentiment, like Tom Standage, who wrote in An Edible History of Humanity that agriculture is a "profoundly unnatural activity." In defense of farming, we should note that the benefits gained by the elite did eventually trickle down to the peasants, though we have to go to the middle of the bronze age before we see much improvement in their lives (e.g., in Egypt, it happened during the Middle Kingdom, when the pharaohs were no longer spending a big chunk of the country's wealth on pyramid building). We also should remember the old adage from Thomas Hobbes about how the life of the savage is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"; those who live by hunting are more likely to die violently at a young age than those living within the boundaries of civilization. Finally, those who believe agriculture is a mistake cannot offer another way to feed today's global population.

7. Besides the benefits of defense and fishing, the presence of fresh water under the lake houses provided an easy solution to the sanitation problem. The residents probably still wore animal skins at this date, but some fragments of woven flax have turned up at the lake house sites, telling us that they already knew the techniques for making cloth and nets.

8. We call this period the copper or chalcolithic Age, because copper and stone tools were used together.

9. Stonehenge shows us that prehistoric Britons knew how to cooperate in large groups to get something done. Another example is "Grime's Graves," a rock quarry in Norfolk county. Here stone age miners dug more than 360 pits, each about eight feet deep, to get flint for tool-making; underground flint was of better quality than flint which had been exposed to weather on the surface. The archaeologist who examined this site in 1971 estimated that it would have taken a team of 6-7 men about 45 days to excavate each hole, and the job would require removing 800-1,000 tons of sand and chalk to produce eight tons of flint.

10. Also dubbed "Oetzi," after the surrounding mountains.

11. The ancestry of the Basques is one of the great unsolved mysteries that anthropologists face. They are not Celts or Iberians; the Basque language is not Indo-European, nor can it be easily grouped with any other modern language. The Basques know they have been a distinct group for an awfully long time, and claim in one of their stories that when God needed some bones to create the first man with, He took them from a Basque cemetery. They call their ancestors the Barskunes, and the Aquitanians, a tribe that lived in southwest France, may be related to them, but when it comes to tracing where the Barskunes came from, your guess is as good as mine. Since this was the area where cave art has turned up, there is also a possible blood connection with the Cro-Magnon artists. Until more solid evidence turns up, it will have to do. A few have suggested that the Basques are related to the Etruscans, who weren't Indo-European either, but since we do not fully understand the Etruscan language we have nothing to go on here.

12. The Greeks gave the Minoans a Middle Eastern origin. In their myths the god Zeus was always chasing pretty mortal women. One of these was Europa, the princess of Tyre. Zeus came to her in the form of a beautiful bull, and when she climbed on him, he jumped into the sea and swam to Crete. Their affair produced several sons, one of which was Minos. Zeus also promised to name a continent after Europa, hence Europe.

13. The volcano left a layer of ash over a large part of the eastern Mediterranean, and some of it may have blown all the way to Egypt. Some think that the date of this event is too close to the date of the Exodus to be a coincidence, and the two are in fact related; the ash may have caused the plague of darkness, for instance.

14. However, when today's mystics and "New Age" gurus talk about Atlantis, they seem to have something completely different in mind. Their Atlantis sounds more like Babel or the Antediluvian civilization. See The Genesis Chronicles, Chapters 9 and 12, for details on those.

15. The behavior that got heroes into epic literature would not serve them well in a more civilized society. If you had them for neighbors, chances are that you would not want such ruffians to come to your party!

16. Philologists have identified several words of non-Greek origin in the Greek language, which they believe came from the Pelasgians or Minoans. Many of them end in thos, like Korinthos (the city of Corinth), hyacinthos (hyacinth), minthos (mint), and agaminthos (bath); the last one suggests that the first Greeks didn't bathe!

17. Arthur Custance suggested that the Pelasgians were Semites, descended from a patriarch named Peleg (Genesis 10:25); he also ventured that the Hebrus River in Macedonia was named after Peleg's father, Eber. See Noah's Three Sons, Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishing House, 1975, pgs. 115-117.

18. Bronze Age Greeks have several names in history books. Homer called them Achaioi, or Achaeans, while those who give archaeology precedence over literature prefer Mycenaeans, after the name of their main city.

19. One of Schliemann's clues was a scene from the Iliad where Achilles chased Hector around Troy three times. Since both heroes wore armor, it must have been a small town!

20. This may have been a kidnapping, but judging from Helen's behavior, she liked Paris better anyway. Herodotus reported that in the Egyptian version of the story, when Paris left Greece a storm blew blew him to Egypt; he and Helen are brought before an angry Pharaoh, who is disgusted at the behavior of these wife-stealing barbarians. Paris was ordered to leave, but Pharaoh kept Helen in Egypt until her husband came for her. There she stayed for ten years, while the Greeks were fighting to get her out of Troy! After the war Menelaus found out the Trojans were telling the truth when they protested that Helen wasn't there, and went to Egypt to fetch her. Herodotus concluded that Homer rejected this story because it was less exciting than the one he used.

21. Actually, some of the most famous details of the Trojan War, like the death of Achilles and the Trojan Horse episode, do not appear in the Iliad. To fill in this gap we have to rely on Quintus of Smyrna, an obscure Roman author from the 3rd century A.D.

It now appears that the Iliad and the Odyssey are just two parts of a grand epic, that made up no less than eight books when completed. We only know the other books existed because classical authors like Quintus quoted from them. No doubt there were copies of those works in the great libraries of the ancient world, only to be lost when those libraries were destroyed. Imagine how it would be if future archaeologists, examing the literature from our time, try to reconstruct the "Star Wars" saga, and all they have to go on are DVDs from two of the episodes, with no assurance that the surviving episodes are the best ones. That's the situation were are in with the greatest story European civilization ever produced.

22. Palmer, Leonard R., Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in the Light of the Linear B Tablets, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1961, ch. 5, "The Last Days of Pylos."

Support this site!

© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A History of Europe


Other History Papers

Beyond History