The Sea Raiders — Part 4. The Destruction of Knossos.

James Thomas
Jul 21, 2013 · 11 min read


The origins of “The Sea Raiders” saga continues with the following : Part Two — NARRATIVE, Chapter III — “The Destruction of Knossos of A.R. BURN’S Book Minoans Philistines and Greeks

“ (1930). Reproduced in whole for the benefit of the reader.

Shall not the isles shake at the sound of thy fall, when the wounded groan, when the slaughter is made in the midst of thee?…How art thou destroyed that wast inhabited of seafaring men, that was strong in the sea — she and her inhabitants , which caused her terror to be on all that haunt it.”

- Ezekiel xxvi, 15, 17.

The question whether Minoan civilization was doomed, whether, as we vaguely put it, the race was “decadent”, is as difficult to answer as such questions usually are. Clearly the Cretan had for two centuries been extraordinarily active as sailor, explorer and colonist, as trader and manufacturer, as conqueror and organizer, as artist and builder and engineer. It was an outburst of energy on the part of a small people as remarkable as any in history; after 1400 B.C., the people of Crete never again showed any sign of such talent. But the nature of genius, in nations as in the individual, remains obscure, and still more so the nature of degeneracy. Certainly it is not unlikely that the great movement of Cretan colonization overseas had left the stock at home the weaker for the removal of so many thousands of its most vigorous individuals; as also, that the almost complete cessation of warfare within the island of Crete for something like two centuries, under the rule of a strong centralized monarchy with command of the sea, may have led to a decay of the military qualities in at any rate the town populations.

As we have seen, the Knossian rulers, like the Athenian and Florentine republics in their later stages, were now employing less civilised foreigners to do their fighting for them, and the tough Karian mercenaries, who under the banner of Minos had become the most formidable sea-rovers of their day, must at once become a terrible danger if success should desert Minoan arms. And we have even one suggestion of a more perilous practice still. A fresco from a house near the Palace shows a Minoan captain followed by a line of spear-men who are coal-black. Apparently the house of Minos had learned from the Pharaohs to depend in part for guardsmen on its black mamelukes, recruited via Egypt from among the uncouth and dreaded Negroes of the far Sudan.

It all looks — and the conclusion is most of all suggested by the suddenness of the collapse — as though the Minoan Empire, like its palace-art, was out of touch with the national life; as though it was no longer the self-expression of an expanding people, but merely that most vulnerable of all political organisms, a dynasty, an army and a bureaucracy, for which the rest of the population exists only to be taxed.

Even the swollen size of the population, especially that of the great city may have constituted a potential danger. Cretan colonies may well, like those of historic Greece, have been intended in part to relieve the pressure of over-population. We know at any rate that some foodstuffs consumed in Knossos were imported from the Nile; it might soon go ill with that teeming populace if anything should happen to disturb the regularity of its receipt of supplies from overseas.

In the last resort, we can only note as a phenomenon the historic fact that the Empire broke down, finally and completely, as the result, it seems, of a single disaster, when at the very height of its apparent prosperity and power. Certainly at the court of Knossos there can have been no presage of the future, as the Great Palace Period progressed to its final stage. The last great enterprise of Minoan as of Athenian imperialism was also its farthest afield. At home life under the Sea-Kings continued cultured, peaceful and secure; cultured with a refined and delicate luxury almost worthy of China, and like nothing that the West was to know again for over a thousand years.

Knossos led the Aegean world in every refinement of daily living, of the fine arts, and apparently vice; and the life of the capital continued- the relics make it perfectly clear — gaily and without foreboding up to the very morning when, with appalling suddenness, the crash came.

The “True-Cretans” of Praisos, who, as inscriptions show, still in Hellenic times spoke their pre-Hellenistic language, said that the fall of the house of Minos began with the Sicilian Expedition. Their story is mentioned in Herodotos and preserved to us in full by Diodoros.

The legend goes, that some great artist of the Minoan court (in the story it is of course the famous Daidalos (Daedalus) himself) had become involved in the most terrible scandal by which that court had ever been set aghast — and a scandal that involved no less a lady than the queen. When it came to light he fled overseas (flew, so the legend says) out of reach, as he hoped, of the wrath of the great king. No shore of the Aegean would have been safe for him; he took refuge far away, in Western Sicily, where at the city of Kamikos reigned a powerful chief, Kokalos of the Sikanoi. Kokalos was nothing loth to shelter and employ the great craftsman. His subjects might be barbarians, but Cretan sailors had ere now made their way so far west, and the king was at least veneered with Aegean culture.


The Postern Gate. (From Minoans, Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

But the arm of the Lord of Crete was long, like the tentacles of the octopus that adorns some of his government’s standard weights. Presently it was stretched out to recover and take vengeance upon the person of the refugee. Minos himself appeared with a fleet, and demanded his extradition. Kokalos temporized, and returned a courteously evasive answer. He proposed a conference within the walls of Kamikos, and offered Minos entertainment. The temptation was severe, to a Cretan prince accustomed to every luxury, now, after a long and uncomfortable sea-voyage, camped beside his long-boats on a barbarous shore. Minos took the risk and went up to the castle, where, in good Aegean fashion, Kokalos offered him the bath of welcome.

(This detail is important, since the custom of offering visitors a bath is not Hellenic, and is old-Aegean, Odyssey, IV, 48–9, and also the fact that Minoan bath-rooms tend to be near the front door. The mention of this custom, therefore, along with what seem to be genuine pre-Hellenistic names (Kokalos, Kamikos) makes it likely that we are indeed dealing with a genuine Cretan tradition, and not with a Late Greek compilation.).

The chief’s own daughters were bidden attend to the bathing of the honoured guest. There Minos perished, drowned in the hot water of that same bath, by order of the treacherous Sikan. Simultaneously, the Cretan ships along the shore were attacked and fired; and few, if any, of Minos’ leaderless followers made their way home again.

From Crete, a great armada set sail to avenge the murder of the king, though even at this crisis there are said to have been Cretans who were slow to move and cities that, on this pretext or that, sent no contingent. Still it was a powerful armament that reached Sicily; but reverses dogged their operations in this distant land. They encamped before Kamikos, but could make no impression on its fortifications, where Kokalos and his Cretan artificer conducted the defence. Storms battered and crippled their fleet, and as the siege dragged on famine thinned their ranks. And in their absence, irretrievable ruin befell the cities of Crete.

Who it was that sacked the palace of Knossos, we do not know. Sir Arthur Evans speaks of a revolution, an upheaval of “submerged elements within the island”. But to most writers it has seemed that the destruction is too universal and the resultant alteration in the whole balance of power in the Aegean too complete for this theory to find favour. An external enemy, it is almost certain, must have done the damage. But the problem still remains, from which side of the Aegean that enemy came.

Egyptian records show that one immediate consequence of the shattering of Minoan sea-power was the appearance as predatory sea-raiders of the Shardana and Lykians, the former probably, the latter certainly, a people of the Asian coast. There even survive in Late Greek authors one or two hints — hopelessly fragmentary and vague — of an early Greek tradition of “Sardanians” being connected with an attack on Minos.


A Royal Tomb. (From Minoans Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

Alternatively, M. Glotz ingeniously suggests that the arrival of mainland Mycenaean pottery in Egypt at this very time and simultaneously at Mykenai that of a whole consignment of Egyptian faience ware, marked with the royal cartouche of Amenhotep III, marks the conclusion of an agreement between the Pharaoh and the Greek mainland dynasts to trade direct and cut out the exorbitant middleman’s profits of the House of Minos. Such an agreement would be quite in the spirit of the very commercial diplomacy of the Tell-el-Armarna letters; and it could not be put into effect so long as Minoan sea-power remained in being.

It is certain, anyhow, that Mykenai reached the height of her power as Knossos fell, and that the culture of the Greek mainland now begins to influence that of Crete, instead of being influenced by it as for centuries past; a consideration which points to the mainland as on the whole the most likely source of the attack.

The fourth century atthidographers, those assiduous collectors and systematizers of Athenian and Attic local legend, knew a fine and romantic story of Theseus the Athenian and Troizenian hero, who slew the Minotaur and escaped from the Labyrinth, by the love of Ariadne the daughter of Minos the king. There was also a sequel, which told how the hero returned later with a fleet and army, seeking his revenge.

Such material cannot be criticized as history, especially since what at first sight seems a good and unexaggerated version of a legend in the Late Greek historians on further inspection usually appears to be merely a rationalizing version. Such are the well-meaning “histories” that turn the Minotaur into an Admiral Bull of the Minoan navy, against whom Theseus fought a fleet-action. Yet even here, beneath the masses of poetic romance and learned rationalization, there did exist a sub-stratum of genuine ancient tradition. Philochoros for example told how Ariadne fell in love with Theseus when she saw him in the arena and comments “for it was customary in Crete for women as well as men to look on”. It was, as we know from many Cretan wall-paintings; but that Philochoros, over a thousand years later, should know it is surprising. Nothing but the existence of a tradition based on early poems or stories can account for it.

Philochoros’ evidence is the more valuable because he records the detail with such obvious surprise. Contemporary Athenian custom was the exact opposite. Certainly no historic Athenian invented that episode.

This being so, one is the more willing to accept as tradition, not imaginative construction, Kleidemos’ account of the making of the war-navy with which the mainland prince made his attack on Crete. There was much secret shipbuilding at Troizen in Argolis, Theseus’ other principality, and at the desolate harbour of Thymoitadai. Then the golden opportunity is given by the Minoan disaster in Sicily. The new squadrons with their creator put out to sea and make their dash for Crete.

The ruins at Knossos at several points showed the excavators how fearfully complete was the surprise. The people of the great city had scarcely time to fly; none at all in which to save their property. That morning, a sculptor sat down in his workshop to work on a stone vase; but the vase was left unfinished when the alarm summoned the craftsman to fight or fly. At the royal chapel, attendants set out the holy vessels and libation-jars for a service that was never performed. Some rooms in the palace were being re-decorated; the unfinished frescoes remain, in the too-flamboyant style of the latest palace art. Perhaps it was an hour, from the movement when the coastguards sighted strange ships in the offing until they grounded in the shallows at the mouth of the Kairatos and the tide of armed men came pouring over their bows.

In ordinary times the very size of the city and its population would have made it hazardous to raid the place even if the trained Lelegian “regulars” were absent on a campaign. The invader had chosen his time well, when Crete was drained of its best fighting-men for the great struggle in Sicily.

And even so, the capital of the sea-kings did not fall wholly without a fight. Kleidemos tells how a young prince, king Minos’ son, rallied the household troops (Doriphoroi, the word used of a ruler’s personal guard, and translates as Dori-Phoroi — Spear-Carriers or Spear-Men) and tried to hold “the north gate of the labyrinth”. These guards, who would probably include the black spearmen, were presumably the only troops present on the defending side. They had a good position round the old guard-house and the narrow entrance-way; the palace was no castle, but it had been built partly with an eye to defence against a riot or sudden raid.

But the odds were too overwhelming. The defence, if it consisted solely of the Guards, had no reserves to bring up. The resistance may have been desperate, but it cannot have been long. The prince Deukalion was killed, the outnumbered Minoan troops broken and driven backwards, and the half-civilized Greek invaders burst their way in.


The King’s Death mask, Mykenai. (From Minoans Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

Then the greatest city and most splendid palace of the Aegean world was given up to the sack. Most thoroughly the looting was done. Hardly a vestige of silver or gold was found by the excavators in all the extent of the ruins. There was no need to leave any corner unsearched through haste; there was no revanche to fear. The remnants of the defenders had fled to the hills; the dreaded Cretan-Cycladic fleet had gone to its destruction on the rocks of the far west. Minos lay dead in Sicily and his son somewhere between the guard-house and the shattered doors of the north gate.

There was smashing and destruction, too; too well had the name of Minos been hated and feared by the mainland folk; and presently, out of the plundered building the flames roared up. Billowing clouds of smoke rose, and sheets of flame of intense heat, as the oil in store in the royal magazines took fire. It has even been suggested that the clay tablets of the Knossian archives owe their preservation, in a soil by no means so dry as the sands of Egypt, to the exceptionally thorough firing that they thus received.

Walls cracked, floors foundered and roofs crashed in as the burning beams gave way; there was mountains of debris everywhere afterwards, when people could venture back on to the smouldering site. Under it in places, protected by some fragment of wall or half-burnt beam, still stood the relics of a people caught unprepared — the libation jars in the chapel, and in the stone-cutter’s workshop the unfinished vase — to tell their pathetic tale to the archaeologist after more than three thousand years had gone.


A study of the Bronze Age by James Thomas

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