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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 11 - Early People of the Aegean

 What will we be learning in this unit?
  • What civilizations influenced the Minoans?
  • How did Mycenaean civilizations affect the later Greeks?
  • What do the epics of Homer reveal about the Greeks?

Minoan Civilizations
  • Washed by the warm waters of the Aegean (uh jee uhn) Sea, Crete was home to a brilliant early civilization. We do not know what the people who built this civilization called themselves. However, the British archaeologist who unearthed its ruins called them Minoans after Minos, a legendary king of Crete. Minoan civilization reached its height, or greatest success, between 1750 b.c. and 1500 b.c.  
  • The success of the Minoans was based on trade, not conquest. Minoan traders set up outposts throughout the Aegean world. From their island home in the eastern Mediterranean, they crossed the seas to the Nile Valley and the Middle East. Through contact with Egypt and Mesopotamia, they acquired ideas and technology that they adapted to their own culture.

 Minoan Civilizations
  • The rulers of this trading empire lived in a vast palace at Knossos. It housed rooms for the royal family, banquet halls, and working areas for artisans. It also included religious shrines, areas dedicated to the honor of gods and goddesses.
  • The walls of the palace at Knossos are covered with colorful frescoes, watercolor paintings done on wet plaster. These frescoes tell us much about Minoan society. Leaping dolphins reflect the importance of the sea to the Minoan people.Religious images indicate that the Minoans worshiped the bull and a mother goddess. Other paintings show young men and women strolling through gardens or jumping through the horns of a charging bull. They suggest that women appeared freely in public and may have enjoyed more rights than women in most other ancient civilizations.

Minoan Civilizations
  • By about 1400 b.c., Minoan civilization had vanished. Archaeologists are not sure of the reasons for its disappearance. A sudden volcanic eruption on a nearby island may have rained flaming death on Knossos. An earthquake may have destroyed the palace, followed by a tidal wave that drowned the inhabitants of the island.
  • However, invaders certainly played a role in the destruction of Minoan civilization. These intruders were the Mycenaeans, the first Greek-speaking people of whom we have a written record.

Rulers of Mycenae
  • Mycenaean civilization dominated the Aegean world from about 1400 b.c. to 1200 b.c. Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans were sea traders. They reached out beyond the Aegean to Sicily, Italy, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. The newcomers learned many skills from the Minoans, including the art of writing. They, too, absorbed Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences, which they passed on to later Greeks. 
  • The Mycenaeans lived in separate city-states on the mainland. In each, a warrior-king built a thick-walled fortress from which he ruled the surrounding villages. Wealthy rulers amassed hoards of treasure, including fine gold ornaments that archaeologists have unearthed from their tombs.

 Rulers of Mycenae
  • The Mycenaeans are best remembered for their part in the Trojan War, which took place around 1250 b.c. The conflict may have had its origins in economic rivalry between Mycenae and Troy, a rich trading city in present-day Turkey. Troy controlled the vital straits, or narrow water passages, that connect the Mediterranean and Black seas. However, Greek legend attributes the war to a more romantic cause. After the Trojan prince Paris kidnapped Helen, the beautiful wife of a Greek king, the Mycenaeans sailed to Troy to rescue her. For the next 10 years, the two sides battled until the Greeks finally seized Troy and burned the city to the ground. 
  • For centuries, most people regarded the Trojan War as purely a legend. Then, in the 1870s, a wealthy German businessman, Heinrich Schliemann, set out to prove that the legend was rooted in fact. As he excavated the site of ancient Troy, Schliemann found evidence of fire and war dating to about 1250 b.c. Though most of the details remain lost in legend, modern scholars agree that the Trojan War was an actual event.

Age of Homer
  • Not long after the fall of Troy, Mycenaean civilization crumbled under the attack of sea raiders. About the same time, another wave of Greek-speaking people, the Dorians, invaded from the north. As Mycenaean power faded, people abandoned the cities, and trade declined. From 1100 b.c. to 800 b.c., Greek civilization seemed to step backward. People forgot many skills, including the art of writing. 
  • We get hints about life during this period from two great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These epics may have been the work of many people, but they are credited to the poet Homer, who probably lived about 750 b.c. According to tradition, Homer was a blind poet who wandered from village to village, singing of heroic deeds. Like the great Indian epics, Homer's tales were passed on orally for generations before they were finally written down.

 Age of Homer
  • The Iliad is our chief source of information about the Trojan War, although the story involves gods, goddesses, and even a talking horse. At the start of the poem, Achilles, the mightiest Greek warrior, is sulking in his tent because of a dispute with his commander. Although the war soon turns against the Greeks, Achilles stubbornly refuses to listen to pleas that he rejoin the fighting. Only after his best friend is killed does Achilles return to battle. 
  • The Odyssey tells of the struggles of the Greek hero Odysseus to return home to his faithful wife, Penelope, after the fall of Troy. On his long voyage, Odysseus encounters a sea monster, a race of one-eyed giants, and a beautiful sorceress who turns men into swine. 
  • The Iliad and Odyssey reveal much about the values of the ancient Greeks. The heroes display honor, courage, and eloquence. For almost 3,000 years, the epics of Homer have inspired European writers and artists.