The Palace of Minos was built over several
centuries from about 2000 onward. It was an extensive structure, with an
impressive grand staircase and many wings, additions, and storage chambers. In
designing some of its architectural features the Minoans displayed remarkable
technical ability. The palace had a plumbing system with water running through
fitted clay pipes, and the palace windows were
covered with a form of glazed windowpane. It was in the grace and beauty of
their art that the Minoans achieved their greatest distinction. Minoan art bears
witness to a civilization that valued elegance and style. The walls of the
palace were decorated with frescoes showing jeweled ladies in elaborate gowns
and graceful young men bearing cups and vases; paintings of gardens, birds, and
animals express the Minoans' delight in nature. Minoan pottery often depicts
marine themes: plants from the sea, flying fish, and lively renderings of the
gaiety and freedom of these designs are almost unique to Minoan artists.
The peaceful nature of Minoan civilization is suggested by the absence of
fortifications at Knossos and at palaces excavated at other sites in Crete.
Knossos was clearly the wealthiest of the Cretan cities and, judging from the
size of its palace, was the center of a complex administration. Surviving
records indicate that the king was served by an efficient bureaucracy. He
probably acted as priest in religious ceremonies, for there is no evidence of a
powerful priestly class like that of Egypt. Among the deities worshiped—and
perhaps the chief one—was a bare-breasted goddess who was thought to rule over
the world of nature.
Much of the wealth of Crete was generated by trade. The Greek historian
Thucydides wrote that Minos was the first man to have a sea empire. We have no
information about Minos from any sources close to his possible era, but there is
a hint about the power of Minos in the legend of the Minotaur (the "Minos-bull"),
the monster who lived in a labyrinth and devoured girls and boys sent to him as
This legend, with Thucydides' evidence, suggests that the Greeks had a memory of
a powerful ruler who dominated parts of the Aegean Sea. But any Cretan dominion
overseas was not an empire in the modern sense, for Crete lacked the manpower to
control it directly. At most, its dominion consisted of a group of trading posts
distributing the products of Crete.
About 1380, according to a widely accepted date, disaster engulfed Knossos and
other Cretan cities; the stately palaces were burned or destroyed. There is
continuing debate about what caused this catastrophe. A massive earthquake on
the nearby island of Thera, about 1500, must have weakened Crete as well and may
have assisted the Greeks in asserting their domination in the fifteenth century
B.C.; perhaps the disaster ca. 1380 was connected with a quarrel or rebellion
against Greek rule. In any event, the Greek city of Mycenae had now
entered on a period of prosperity and power.