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Before Athenian Thalassocracy: Minos’ Sea Power in Archaic and Non-Athenian Traditions

Valerio Caldesi Valeri

Modern scholars (Starr 1954-55, 282-91; Baurain 1991, 255-66) have long assumed that the thalassocracy the Cretan king Minos was thought to have established over most of the Aegean sea and the Cycladic islands amounted to a fifth-century BCE Athenian invention endorsed by the historians Herodotus and Thucydides (Hdt. 3.122.2; Thuc. 1.4). According to this view, Minos was never imagined as a thalassocrat either outside of Athens or in earlier literature (Morris 1992, 174-5).

While sound in interpreting the expressions for, and notion of Minos’ thalassocracy as a construct original to the fifth century BCE, this theory seems to have ignored the efforts by the two historians to ground in pre-existing traditions termed akoē their association of the Minos figure with an early thalassocracy in the Aegean (about akoē, see Wille (2001); Irwin (2007) 212, nn. 67-8). The professed antiquity of akoē (Hdt. 1.171.2) and the historians’ references to it speak against the modern view that reduces Minos’ thalassocracy to an Athenian invention ex nihilo. Moreover, the defining features of Minos’ sea power outlined by both historians and rooted in akoē, namely ownership of a navy, and rule of islands implemented through their colonization, can all be found in either archaic or non-Athenian sources, proving that the association of Minos with sea power had both long been in the making before Athens could have ‘invented’ Minos’ thalassocracy and had formed independently of Athenian influence.

First, the two major naval enterprises undertaken by Minos against Athens and in Sicily implied that the king both possessed a navy and secured control of islands to afford him safe travels across the sea. The tradition about Minos’ punitive expedition against Athens to avenge the death of his son Androgeus in Attica goes only as far back as to Philochorus (FGrHist 328 F17) but the name of Androgeus, and accordingly knowledge of the story, already appears in a fragment from the Catalogue of Women ([Hesiod] Fragm. 145 M-W, line 9). Long before making its way onto the Attic theater (Sophocles’ Kamikioi), the story of Minos’ campaign in Sicily (Hdt. 7.170.1) wherein the Cretan king pursued Daedalus in retaliation for his assistance to Theseus and Ariadne is documented in sixth-century Sicily, its source being demonstrably the Cretan settlers who partook in the foundation of the city of Gela in the early seventh century BCE (Perlman 2002).

Further, that Minos’ rule extended to the neighboring islands around Crete is also suggested already in the Catalogue of Women ([Hesiod] Fragm. 144 M-W). There, Minos was envisaged as lording over cities and neighboring communities, periktiones anthropoi, Zeus’ staff in hand. According to its usage elsewhere in archaic epic (Il. 18.207-8, 211-3; Od. 2.64-5; Il. 17.220), the term periktiones anthropoi included islanders.

Finally, the tradition regarding Minos’ colonization of the Cyclades is found early in the fifth century: the Kean myth of origins, to be dated prior to 480 BCE, attests to Minos’ colonization of Keos (Bacchyl. Ep. 1). In addition, some archaic communities in the Cyclades (and the entire island of Paros, perhaps) were called Minoa in the fifth century (Steph. Byz. s.v. Minoa, Amorgos and s.v. Minoa, Paros), thus claiming for themselves a fictive foundation by Minos just as Keos did: these traditions ought to have been local to the communities interested in establishing a connection with the Cretan king. A Cretan tradition from Praesus reported by Herodotus, reasonably ancient since the historian looked for verification as far into the past as he could (Hdt. 1.171.2: ὅσον καὶ ἐγὼ δυνατός εἰμι <ἐπὶ> μακρότατον ἐξικέσθαι ἀκοῇ), also attests to the submission of the Cyclades and their Carian dwellers to Minos’ rule: the islanders were obliged to man the king’s ships. 

Session/Panel Title:

Time and Memory

Session/Paper Number

3.5

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