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The Aegean Bronze Age: Civilization, Chronology & Art

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

A lot changed in the Bronze Age, as farming communities became major civilizations. In this lesson, we'll explore the Aegean Bronze Age and learn about some important civilizations.

The Aegean Bronze Age

Most people agree that Greek culture is the basis of Western civilization. Ancient Greek influence can be found in our arts, philosophy, sciences, and political ideologies. But if Western civilization developed from the Greeks, then where did Greek civilization come from?

Long before Ancient Greece was the center of philosophy and art, it was filled with nomadic hunter-gatherers back in the Stone Age. Eventually, some of those people developed agriculture, and created permanent communities. The real rise of civilization, however, came with the development of bronze. The Aegean Bronze Age began around 3000 BCE, and lasted until roughly 1100 BCE. It's a mysterious time period that we're still learning about, but one which laid the foundations for European civilizations for millennia to come.

Civilizations of the Aegean

The Bronze Age was defined by the development of bronze tools, but also characterized by new changes in political and social structures. In Eurasia, we see this as the time in which true civilizations emerged, defined by increased urbanization, stricter political structures with hierarchies of power, and more complex economic networks.

For Greece, these civilizations can be categorized in a few ways. The Bronze Age cultures of the Cyclades Islands are known as the Cycladic cultures. Those of mainland Greece are the Helladic Bronze Age cultures. However, we can't forget that the Aegean Sea also touches the Anatolian cultures of Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. It's important to remember that the Greeks and Anatolians had a lot of very close cultural interaction starting in this time. In fact, if you've ever heard the legend of Helen of Troy, then you've heard of at least one famous Anatolian princess.

Minoan Civilization

Early elements of the Bronze Age appear across the Cyclades and mainland Greece as early as 3000 BCE. The first place they all came together, however, was on the island of Crete. Here, a mysterious civilization emerged that found wealth in Mediterranean trade. To this day, we don't know what they called themselves. We call them the Minoans, however, after the legendary King Minos. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, you may be thinking of the legend of Minos' cursed stepson, the Minotaur.

The Minoans developed a complex civilization with sophisticated architecture
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The Minoans are considered to be the first true civilization in European history, flourishing around 2100 BCE. At this time, signs of an increasingly complex society appeared on Crete. The Minoans built the first large-scale architecture, designing palaces so complex that they likely inspired the Greek legend of the Labyrinth. They also developed the first true writing system of Europe, a mysterious language called Linear A which archeologists are still trying to decipher.

Along with their architecture, the Minoans put a lot of effort into their arts. Minoan pottery became more complex and sophisticated; they painted murals on the walls of their palaces, carved small figurines of ivory, and began casting small sculptures in bronze.

The cultural, economic, and political influence of Crete is visible across the Aegean. Around 1600 BCE, Anatolian, Cycladic, and Helladic cultures all began growing from increased trade and contact with the Minoans. Larger cities were developed along the entire Aegean coastline, and art flourished. Many archeologists think the basic artistic ideologies behind these figurines had a big impact on the development of later Greek sculpture.

Cycladic figurines, with their crossed arms and flattened forms, are among the most definitive Bronze Age Aegean art forms
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The Mycenaean Civilization

Around 1500 BCE, Minoan civilization began to collapse following a series of natural disasters. Minoan artists, merchants, and aristocrats spread across the Aegean, bringing their ideas with them. One of these was the concept of written language, leading to the development of Linear B, the first true written language of the mainland.

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