Lesson 3a: Ancient civilizations and their West-East Mediterranean networks

Dear Students,

welcome to lesson 3, where we will start looking West of the Mediterranean, and at the networks of information, people and goods that tied parts of ancient Western society to the complex eastern societies of the fertile crescent and the Nile.

Ancient Minoa

By the middle of the third millennium BC (during the Bronze age), a cosmopolitan world had developed in the Mediterranean region, connected by trade routes that stretched from Mesopotamia in the east to Greece and Crete in the West. Its centres of operations were the Phoenician cities in what is now Lebanon and the Syrian city of Ugarit, which rapidly came to be the Venice of the ancient Near East, an open port where merchants from an array of different places lived and traded with one another.

Within this cosmopolitan world, Minoan Crete emerged as the first complex society (or, first ‘civilization’) in the Western Mediterranean, and it dominated Aegean trade from roughly 2000 to 1400BCE.

The Minoan order consisted of small-scale political units ruled by local royalty. The royalty were house in monumental palaces where provision was made for the extensive storage of produce and the manufacture of luxury goods, often made from materials imported from afar. Extensive records were kept, written in the Linear A script, a writing system that has still to be deciphered.

Minoan Crete’s position on important sea routes to Egypt and the Levant suggests that it was deeply influenced by the Near East. The Mesopotamian states, in particular, had long been interested in the Mediterranean region and the Minoans were heavily involved in trade in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

minoantrade routes
Minoan Crete’s trade routes (National Geographic)

At the height of their power and influence, the Minoans traded north to the Aegean islands, west to the Greek mainland, Sicily, and Sardinia, east to Cyprus, Asia Minor, and the Levant, and south to Libya and Egypt. Paine

Some of the historical evidence of their interactions include:

  • Goods from Egypt and the Near East found in Minoan tombs and in the ruins of their palaces.
  • Large amounts of mass-produced Minoan pottery found in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
  • The influence of the more naturalistic style of Minoan art on its Egyptian, Syrian and Greek counterparts.
  • The borrowing of common Near Eastern motifs in Minoan art.

Unusually, women held a far more prominent position in Minoan culture than they did in other Bronze Age societies, with female priests and queens portrayed on the palace frescoes as often as their male counterparts.

It also appeared that, unlike in the violent Near East, warfare played a far lesser role in Minoan Crete. Minoan influence on the Aegean region was the result of trade rather than conquest. Crete had no defensive forts, perhaps in part because  it existed during a period when there is no evidence of any seafaring power capable of launching an overseas invasion against such a remote target.

The decline of Minoan civilization was once linked directly to the explosion of Thera, but Minoan society survived another two centuries. When the end came, it was at the hands of the Mycenaeans, to whom the Minoans had introduced writing and a host of other cultural refinements (Paine). The Mycenaens, of course, later became the stuff of classical Greek myth and legend.

Mycenaean Greece


Mycenaean Greece developed under the influence of Minoan civilization, and eventually superseded it; the Mycenaeans flourished between 1600
and 1100 B.C.E., conquered Crete by around 1450 BCE, Minoan Crete having possibly been weakened by the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera (Santorini).

Both Minoan and Mycenaean societies were strongly influenced by their geography. We’ve already noted that Crete was ideally positioned as a trading node for the west and east of the Mediterranean.

The sea also influenced the evolution of Greek society. Greece had a long seacoast, dotted by bays and inlets that provided numerous harbors. The Greeks also inhabited a number of islands to the west, the south, and particularly the east of the Greek mainland. It is no accident that the Greeks became seafarers who sailed out into the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas (Spielvogel).

The Mycenaeans established a trading network that encompassed the Aegean, coastal Asia Minor, Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt and that would survive until the twelfth century BCE.

Geography drove Mycenaeans to the sea, but also had other effects for their culture (culture here meaning ‘way of life’).

Unlike the landmasses of Mesopotamia and Egypt, Greece occupied a small area, a mountainous peninsula that encompassed only 45,000 square miles of territory. Much of Greece consists of small plains and river valleys surrounded by mountain ranges 8,000 to 10,000 feet high. The mountainous terrain had the effect of isolating Greeks from one another. Consequently, Greek communities tended to follow their own separate paths and develop their own way of life.

Over a period of time, these communities became attached to their independence and were only too willing to fight one another to gain advantage. No doubt the small size of these independent Greek communities fostered participation in political affairs and unique cultural expressions, but the rivalry among these communities also led to the bitter warfare that ultimately devastated Greek society. (Spielvogel)

The Mycenaean Greeks were part of the Indo-European family of peoples who spread from their original Central Asian location into southern and western Europe, India, and Iran. They take their name from the Peloponnesian city of Mycenae. Their society developed as a patchwork of states, each centred on heavily fortified citadel-palaces: Athens, Thebes and Pylos.

Unlike in Minoan Crete, there were no cities or even towns in the Mycenaean world: most of the population lived either in small settlements based around the palace or in scattered villages. The temples, key institutions in the Near East, carried little influence in Mycenaean Greece. There is also little sign of one central political authority; none of the Mycenaean palatial centres appears to have been powerful enough to dominate.

That only some of the rudiments of complex statehood that had been perfected in the Near East and Egypt reached Mycenae maybe one reason for this difference. Another was the central role played by war within Mycenaean elite culture. Mycenae was evidently heavily imbued with a warrior culture very similar to the one described by Homer with a patchwork of kingdoms ruled over by warrior kings who enjoyed a lifestyle of feasting, hunting and, most popular of all, war.

Mycenaean Greece was the source of later Hellenic legends about the founding of Greek civilization. Even if Homer’s tales of Agamemnon, Menelaus and their great siege of Troy do not represent cast-iron historical fact they do at least seem to contain vague memories of real world events and civilizations that had once existed. Many of the gods which the Mycenaeans worshipped would become important members of the Greek divine pantheon. The Mycenaean language, which was written with the Linear B script, was an early precursor to ancient Greek.

The structure of Mycenaean society was almost feudal society with the Wanax (king) at its head, assisted by an elite warrior caste, the heqetai. At the bottom of this socio-economic pyramid were the doeroi, a class of serfs who performed the agricultural labour.



Minoans and Mycanaean were western Mediterranean societies. On the eastern side, another society that made important contributions to what we think of as Western civilization were the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians, along with the Greeks, were the first peoples to create sea-based colonial empires, two-way traffic in commodities, people, and culture, as distinct from one-way migrations or trade in prestige goods intended principally for elite consumers.

Over the course of five hundred years, Phoenician and Greek mariners founded or nurtured ports many of which still pulse with trade almost three thousand years later: Tyre and Sidon; Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis), Cádiz, and Cartagena; Piraeus, Corinth, and Byzantium (now Istanbul); and Marseille. They were the first people to build ships specifically for war and develop strategies for their use; to erect port complexes dedicated to facilitating commerce; and to systematically explore the waters beyond the Mediterranean.


They charted new routes, not only in the Mediterranean but also in the Atlantic Ocean, where they sailed south along the west coast of Africa. The goods they traded with included purple dye (their name comes from the Greek word phoinix, meaning ‘purple’), jewellery, glass, wine, olive oil and lumber from the famous cedars of Lebanon. They also traded in Egyptian papyrus from their city of Byblos (from which the Greek word biblos, meaning ‘book’ is derived).

Phoenicians simplified and disseminated an alphabet that historians believe to have been invented in Mesopotamia, sometime after 1500BCE. That alphabet became the basis of Greek, latin (Roman) language and ultimately forms the basis of English (see the reading on wechat).

Other Middle Eastern Societies


Along with the connecting Phoenicians, the Hittites, Israelites, Assyrians and Babylonians all  contributed to the making of not just the Middle East, but also Western Civilization.

Some of the innovations and dissemination that these societies produced occurred through conflict. In fact warfare has been one of the major arenas of progress. Consider for example the technological advancements made by the stirrup, the wheel (enabling  and gunpowder, and the social contribution made by organization and accounting to warfare and the power of states.

Conflict also involved the migration and settlement of diverse peoples, and this enabled a cross-pollination of culture and science (the dissemination of ideas and practices and beliefs).

The ancient Israelis (circa 1200-1000BCE) were one of those conflict-driven migratory people, and they are important not least because their spiritual heritage—the Judeo-Christian values—is one of the basic pillars of Western civilization (Spielvogel).

The ancient  Mediterranean: home of dissemination and innovation

“Geography is central to the story of civilization” (Richard Miles”).

The very first cities on earth sprang up on the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, valleys that were fertile and abundant, fed by rivers that were easily navigated, enabling the spread of people, goods and ideas. It was from these great river ways that civilization would flow towards the Mediterranean, the next great theatre for its emergence.


The Mediterranean possessed the same essential combination of geographical factors. The Mediterranean might be classed as a sea but it is almost completely enclosed by heavily populated land, meaning that it served as an information superhighway par excellence.

The Mediterranean has always managed to be both one sea and a collection of many different seas: Aegean, Adriatic, Tyrrhenian and Ionian. It was out of this strange combination of inter-connectivity and isolation that the city-state grew; physically isolated enough for a sense of independent identity to be fostered, whilst benefiting from the skills, ideas and goods that were borne on the sea from one community to another.

 Greeks, Romans, Etruscans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians …. communicated with each other, spreading ideas and exchanging vital information about the different ways in which societies could be organized.

Trade in goods, people and ideas was the great engine of progress and it was the trade routes across the deserts and mountains of the Middle East and around the Mediterranean that made it possible to spread ideas throughout the region. (Miles, R., Ancient Worlds)

Already by the eighteenth century BC, the Near East, Anatolia and the eastern Mediterranean had begun to resemble a joined up, cosmopolitan world in which innovations in one society were rapidly disseminated to others. By 800 BC the coasts of the western Mediterranean were experiencing fairly continuous intercourse with the East. South of the olive-line an Iron Age people of central Italy had already during the eighth century BC established trading contacts with Greeks further south in Italy and with Phoenicia. These “Villanovans” adopted Greek characters for writing their language. Subsequently, Etruscan society developed in the form of city-states, producing art of high quality. One of their city-states would one day be known as Rome.

One consequence for our thinking is to note some of the particular and multiple roots of and routes to Western civilization.


Miles, R. Ancient Worlds: The search for the Origins of Western Civilization, Penguin.

Jackson J. Spielvogel – Western Civilization-Cengage Learning (2015)

Paine, The Sea and Civilization: a Maritime History of the Mediterranean.


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