Minoan Civilization: Economy & Trade

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  • 0:05 The Minoans
  • 0:52 Overview of the Minoan Economy
  • 3:35 Controversy
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Minoans were the first major civilization of Europe, and they set some important precedents. In this lesson, we're going to explore their economy and trade and see what modern scholars think of the Minoans today.

The Minoans

Before Greece was Greece, it was home to independent city-states like Athens and Sparta. They constantly competed for intellectual and military dominance. However, even these great civilizations weren't the first prominent societies of the region.

Much of what would become ancient Greek culture traces its lineage back to the Bronze Age civilization of the Minoans, centered on the island of Crete. Flourishing from roughly 2000-1500 BCE, the Minoans became one of the most powerful forces in the Aegean, expanding their cultural ideas across the Mediterranean and creating the first foundations of a unified Western culture. However, their power wasn't simply militaristic; it was economic. Through trade and exchange, the Minoans managed to secure lots of power and left quite a legacy.

Overview of the Minoan Economy

Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, is built of fertile soils in a region of moderate temperatures and reliable rainfall. Basically, it's a great place for agriculture. Not only did the ability to grow lots of food result in the conditions necessary for the Minoans to develop the first advanced civilization of Europe, but it also gave them the tools they needed to build a strong international economy.

The Minoan economy was based in the maritime trade of agricultural products like wine, olives, and figs in exchange for minerals and other resources like copper and ivory. To facilitate this trade, the Minoans not only built quality roads that connected their farms and exchange centers to numerous ports around the island, but also maintained a massive and impressive fleet of ships. Evidence of Minoan products and cultural influences have been found in mainland Greece, Asia Minor, the entire Mediterranean coast of the Middle East, and even as far as Egypt. Products and artistic ideas from each of these cultures have also been found in Minoan Crete, so we can tell that there was a high degree of exchange between these groups.

The Minoans traded products like wine in vases like this one
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Our understanding of the Minoan economy really rests on two defining principles. The first is that of a maritime empire. According to later mainland Greek sources, the Minoan kings developed an extensive maritime empire that stretched across the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Sea. This would have given the Minoans something of a trade monopoly in this region, controlling ports and the exchange rates of various products. Allegedly, their navy was feared by all, and their merchants were found in every port of the region.

The Minoans also intentionally transported their arts and cultural ideas into regions where they held ports, helping to make other cultures friendlier to them.

Minoan fresco of Minoan ships and a harbor
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The other definitive trait of the Minoan economy is how they managed their economies at home. The traditional view is that the Minoans were one of the first civilizations to develop a palace economy in which royal administrative centers were used to gather up and then redistribute all the products and services needed in Crete. Basically, instead of developing a monetary system where goods could be exchanged based on set values, the Minoans sent all their goods to these palaces, who then split them up and redistributed them among the people.

Ruins of the Minoan palace of Knossos
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