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Minos: A Problematic First Thalassocrat in Thucydides’ Archaeology

Valerio Caldesi-Valeri

University of Kentucky

The Cretan king Minos spearheads Thucydides’ account of the origins and development of Greek thalassocracy in the Archaeology (Thuc. 1.4). A compelling first exemplar, Minos’ naval power has been oftentimes construed as a prototype for the Athenian thalassocracy. For instance, conquest, colonization and increment in revenues are characteristics that both Minos’ rule over the Aegean and the Athenian expedition to Sicily share (Kallet-Marx). Other parallels have been noted in claiming the exemplarity that the model of Minos represented for Athens: symbolically, the Athenian removal of bones of Carian pirates from Delos would reiterate Minos’ banishment of the Carian pirates from the Cycaldes (Irwin). Even from the standpoint of terminology, the two thalassocracies overlap with one another: Μίνως θαλάσσης ἐκράτησε (Thuc. 1.4) as much as θαλάσσης ἐκράτουν οἱ Ἀθηναῖοι (Thuc. 8.76.4).

This paper sets out to reconsider these views arguing that Thucydides offered with Minos an ambiguous archetype liable to be construed as more or less relevant according to the readers’ different perspectives. In his list of naval potentates in the Archaeology, Thucydides aims at undermining the significance of previous sea powers to prove the unprecedented eminence attained by Athens’ current maritime empire. As much as Minos represents a model close to the Athenian archē conceptually, the difference in scale presupposed by the Archaeology problematizes the comparison, and so do colonization and the suppression of piracy, integral parts of Minos’ thalassocratic program, yet not practiced on a regular basis by the Athenian sea power (only in the cases of Scyros at Thuc. 1.98 and Melos at Thuc. 5.116). Should the readers ignore the gap in proportions between Minos and Athens established by the Archaeology and accept that naval powers operate in like manner, then Minos could be vested in their eyes with salience for the Athenian empire. Other readers, instead, might have understood that the Archaeology challenges Minos’ paradigmatic force, since the survey aims to expose how earlier thalassocratic models ultimately fall short in comparison to the Athenian thalassocracy.

An exemplar of ambiguous relevance, Minos’ thalassocracy is also presented more ambivalently than scholarship has usually recognized. To be sure, Thucydides marks with Minos a momentous change in the lifestyle of the Greeks (Irwin). The historian in fact makes a point of emphasizing that since Minos established his fleet and eliminated piracy, the Greeks began seafaring on a more regular basis, grew richer, and lived more safely (Thuc. 1.8). However epochal a moment Minos’ thalassocracy underscored, however, Thucydides seems to deflate any merit the king could have had in facilitating these far-reaching achievements. The attack on piracy pursued by Minos strove for a very concrete, limited result, i.e. the maximization of his own income, to which the pirates represented a threat. Minos’ policy, therefore, comes across as rather myopic and narrow-minded with its focus on a short-term objective, especially if contrasted with the long-standing effects that his policy brings about, ones that go far beyond the shortsighted plans to enhance his own revenues.

Thucydides’ portrayal of Minos thus reveals a strong, negative undercurrent in his presentation of the king’s thalassocracy, perhaps an indication that the historian might have been conforming to a well-attested trend current in contemporary Athenian theater, where the character was consistently abused and represented as a tyrant ([Pl.] Minos 318d; Plut. Thes. 16.3; Strabo 10.4.8). Thucydides’ emphasis on Minos’ accumulation of wealth, while undoubtedly part of a lucid demonstration of how affluence is conducive to power (Kallet-Marx), is also reminiscent of the riches that tyrants like Gyges and Polycrates were famous for amassing. A masterpiece of ambiguity in terms of both the model’s relevance for Athens and its valence, Thucydides’ treatment of Minos explores the positive effects produced by the Cretan thalassocracy, while also solidifying in their opinion a readership familiar with the Minos who walked the tragic stage.

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Herodotus and Thucydides

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