Spartacus: Hollywood fact or fiction?

“I’M SPARTACUS.  No, I’m Spartacus …. and so is my wife”.  So who was Spartacus? First of all I’m not talking about the TV series – which, what little I have seen of it, is a load of hocus pocus – but that’s only to be expected. I’m talking about the 1960 Hollywood film. Did Spartacus actually exist or was he  just a character of Hollywood invention to boost Kirk Douglas’ macho image? (see film trivia at the end for this latter observation).

spartacus poster

Admittedly the film was based on a novel, Spartacus, by Howard Fast (in fact, there have been at least five novels about him – Spartacus, not Fast) but, yes, Spartacus existed but he wasn’t THE leader of the slaves – there were at least two others, Crixus and  Oenomaus, and possibly two more,  Gannicus and Castus, but none of them had such a good PR agent as Spartacus.


Howard Fast (1914-2003)

We have three main ancient sources of Spartacus: Plutarch (c. AD 46 – 120), see his Crassus; Lucius Annaeus Florus (c. AD 74 – 130), see his Epitome of Roman History; and Appian of Alexandria (c. AD 95 – 165), see his Civil Wars. According to these chaps, Spartacus was from Thrace (present day Bulgaria) and either an auxiliary in the Roman Legions or a captive from Romans wars around Thrace. Whichever, he was sold into slavery (for some misdemeanour if an auxiliary) and ended up training as a gladiator at a camp near Capua belonging to Lentulus Batiatus (wonderfully played by Peter Ustinov in the film).


Peter Ustinov (Batiatus) and Charles Laughton (fictional Gracchus) – what a great pairing!

We have no information about Spartacus prior to his escape, so the film was ‘making it all up’ – well, Howard Fast was – Hollywood just followed. In saying that, Hollywood, of course, had  a love interest in the film, Spartacus and Varina (played by Jean Simmons) and this is highly likely as gladiators were allowed female companions. What we do know for sure is that some 70 slaves escaped from the camp and, as previously mentioned, at least three leaders were appointed, Spartacus, Crixus (played by John Ireland in the film) and Oenomaus (sadly for him, ignored in the film – but he was probably killed early on in the revolt). The sources aren’t clear on the actual role of the latter two  but both were Gallic slaves and gladiators.


Nope, no documentary evidence of this fight.

Aside: Of the types of gladiators, it is believed Spartacus was a murmillo who carried 35-40 pounds of arms and armour, wearing a bronze helmet, various arm and leg guards, large oblong shield and a broad straight bladed sword (a gladius – see the sword in the film poster above). His opponent in the film (played by Woody Strode) was a retiarius who fought with a trident and a nest. In ‘real Roman life’ a murmillo usually fought a thraex who was also heavily armoured but had a short Thracian curved sword and a small round or square shield. A retiarius, usually fought a secutores who was very similar to a murmillo but with a special helmet to protect against the trident.


Zliten mosaic AD 200: left to right:  retiariuas (leg wound and broken trident on ground) fighting secutores;  thraex fighting mirmillo;  hopolmachus (with sword and spear) fighting mirmillo (latter surrendering to referee).


Yep, grubby gladiators thinking of escape ……. or looking to see what’s for supper 

The break-out from the Capua camp took place early in 73 BC. What followed was the Third Servile War (the other two were slave related, as the title may reveal, but nothing to do with this one). The gladiators began fighting for their freedom – just like the Texans at the Alamo, a few blogs back, remember? Actually, nothing like the Texans at the Alamo a few blogs back. This was really a fight for freedom.


Cause of the break-out: “I told you I don’t like soup”

 map 2

The Romans didn’t take the rebellion too seriously at first thinking it just an agitation that would soon be put down. They were wrong. Gaius Claudius Glaber was sent to crush the slaves and he besieged them at Mount Vesuvius (just south of Capua). Spartacus was a bit of a tactician (hence leading historians to believe he had had military experience) and he climbed down the mountain (not alone – with his army… ok) and took the Roman camp by surprise killing nearly all in it (I never said this was going to be pleasant). He then defeated another Roman force sent against him under Publius Varinius. By now his own army had swelled to around 70,000 (although we cannot be sure about any numbers). Rome was a bit embarrassed and in difficulties as most of its legions were away fighting in Hispania and the Third Mithridatic War (Asia Minor).

slaves 1

Spartacus winning the gladiatorial relay race

What happened next, in Spring of 72 BC, is disputed by the ancient sources. Appian suggests that Spartacus and Crixus split their forces and headed south to Thuri and Metapontum respectively (we assume Oenomaus is dead by now as he no longer gets a mention by the ancient historians). Then both armies turned and moved northward to march on Rome. If this is true, one can only assume the detour south was to gain more support. Crixus, with an army of 30,000 (or it may have been only 10,000) is defeated by a Roman force under Lucius Gellius Publicola near Mount Garganus (see map below). Spartacus arrived too late to save Crixus, who is killed (in the film he is killed in the final battle – John Ireland obviously had a good agent). Spartacus then defeated another Roman army under Gnaeus Cornelius Lentullus Clodianus (known as Gnat the Clod for short perhaps?) and executed some 300 Roman soldiers to avenge Crixus’ death – I know, Kirk Douglas would not have done that. After a change of mind about an attack on Rome, he headed back south to Thuri with, by now, around 120,000 men (maybe).

john-ireland-spartacus-2 (1)

“What am I doing here?” thinks Crixus played by John Ireland

According to Plutarch, after his victory over Lentullus Clodianus, Spartacus headed north to Mutina (present day Modena) with the intention of escaping into Cisalpine Gaul. This makes some sense. Here he meets, greets and defeats an army of 10,000  under the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Gaius Cassius Longinius. He and his followers are now free to ‘head for the hills’ – well, the Alps. However, for no explained reason, Spartacus and his crew turned around and headed south again. It may be that crossing the Alps was a too daunting exercise – but why head there in the first place? Spartacus may have been aware that Pompey’s legions were in Hispania and would be heading towards him in due course if he held up in Gaul. But he must have  realised a confrontation with the Romans was inevitable.

AppienSpartacus                 Plutarch 2

The events of 72 BC according to Appian                    The events of 72 BC according to Plutarch

So, who do you believe – Appian or Plutarch? Or neither – perhaps they were both guessing. They were both writing several years after the war and relying on reports given to them and we don’t know how reliable such reports may have been. It really depends on what Spartacus’ motive was. Was he trying to escape or trying to cause as much trouble to the Romans as possible, or trying to end slavery (ambitious or what?!). We don’t know and never will, so not much point dwelling on it.


Kirk Douglas as a determined Spartacus – what was his motive?

71 BC, enter Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Oliver). He is given eight Legions (approx. 40,000 men) and told to sort out Spartacus & Co. By now the slaves are moving south and after several successful on-route skirmishes by the Romans legions, Spartacus set up camp at Rhegium (see map below). Here it’s possible (as seen in the film) he did try and do a deal with Cillician pirates (led by Herbert Lom in the film) to transport his motley mob by ship to Sicily, but he was betrayed – the pirates took his money and ran.


Laurence Olivier as Crassus


           Bust of real Crassus

Spartacus broke out of the, then, besieged camp and headed to the mountains of Petelia (present day Strongoli) near Croton (see map below). The rebel force must have have split at some stage (possible dissension in the ranks) and a group under Gannicus and Castus was defeated at  Cantenna  (modern location unknown) by part of Crassus’ army. Crasssus then turned on Spartacus and the latter soon realised that a fight was inevitable.  We don’t know how many men there were in the rebel army but an estimate of around 30-40,000 may not be far off. It’s not entirely clear where the final battle took place – see map below, but there is another belief that it took place further northwest, at Senerchia/Caposele, in Luciana, evidenced by archaeological finds of armour and weapons. Take your pick!  However, the slaves were defeated and the ancient sources say the Spartacus was killed in the action but his body was never found. Some 6,000 surviving slaves were crucified on the Appina Way (the road from Rome to Capua) as an example to rebellious slaves, but there is no suggestion that Spartacus was one of them (and, sorry, Tony Curtis’ character was Hollywood fiction).



In the film, it is suggested that the main reason for the defeat of the slaves was because Crassus was reinforced  by Pompey and his legions coming from Hispania. It was true that Pompey was on route but he was not involved in the final battle (trivia: filmed in Madrid). Crassus knew he was coming and so had to defeat the slaves before he arrived otherwise the credit for victory would go to the reinforcing general. Pompey did arrive in time to wipe out some 5,000 fleeing slaves. He kindly gave Crassus the credit for winning the battle but he (Pompey) took the credit for ending the war by wiping out the remnants of the slave army. Generous or what?! Needless to say, Crassus was none too pleased and they weren’t to be best pals.


19th century depiction of the death of Spartacus – in battle

Film trivia: Kirk Douglas was intent on making the film because he had failed to get the lead part in Ben Hur (it went to some Heston chap). Douglas was executive producer and had to hurry to find finance for it because Yul Brynner was also planning to make a film about Spartacus. Universal Studios only gave Douglas the money once he had persuaded Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov (no one knew who Tony Curtis was then) to appear in the film. Good reason as any in 1960.

spartacus_95 2012

Kirk Douglas in 2012 – not bad  at 95!


Next week: Tutankhamun – death can be fatal


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My good friend Hamish McCondor had a goodly quantity of fine vintage port which he took esteem pleasure in consuming in not too delicate quantities. I am pleased to report that, occasionally, he would share a glass or two with my good self. Well, my poor colleague took ill and his doctor ordered him off the port. Weeks went by and Hamish’s health began to seriously fade and so his doctor suggested that he had better take up the port again.

“Aye, doctor”, Hamish responded, “but what about the arrears?”

Art Smth

Troy: Hollywood fact or fiction?

DID TROY really exiats? and if so was there a Trojan War as depicted in Troy? It would appear that Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) found, at Hisarlik, in northwest Turkey, what is believed to be Troy (in fact, he had considerable help from one Frank Calvert – but that’s another story). From archaeological evidence, whether Homer’s Trojan War ever happened is not so clear.  To gain any idea it is useful to compare archaeological evidence from known areas and then see whether it links in with the literature of the Iliad – composed by Homer in the 8th century BC of a war that may have taken place in the 13th century BC at Troy.



Mycenaean comparisons

According to Homer, the Greek (aka Achaean) expedition against King Priam of Troy was led by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae (but you know all that if you have been reading my previous blogs). Homer tells us Agamemnon was a man of great wealth, the lord of deep-golden Mykenai and led a powerful navy of 100 ships – a larger force than all others.  Although there is no archaeological evidence of the existence of Agamemnon, we know the city of Mycenae existed around 1600 – 1100 BC and that it was a city of great wealth – this was realised from excavations of finds of gold in the burial chambers (a previous blog – I can’t keep saying this) and the evidence (pottery) of industry (oil merchants) in the foundations of surrounding buildings.


Map of the Aegean with Troy (Troia) and Mycenae

Some buildings in the city were substantially two-storied with interconnecting drainage.  The site itself indicates a ruling and military class – massive fortifications on a hill top overlooking a rich agricultural plain and the town of Argolis.  All these factors picture a city of the aristocracy and the prosperous. Excavations also showed that the city and its civilisation were destroyed (by fire) in around 1230 BC.  So, if Agamemnon of Mycenae was going to invade Troy it had to be before this date.  The city was later rebuilt to last until around 1100 BC and producing a different style of pottery, but not as the city it once was (so we are not very interested in it – well, I’m not).

When Schliemann excavated Mycenae, he found many treasures in the shaft graves adjacent to the great Lion Gate entrance (see prev …. no, I’m not going to say it).  He was overwhelmed with the finds, particularly the gold masks, one of which he believed to be of Agamemnon.  The problem was the dating.  The shaft graves, in which Schliemann found the treasures, were constructed in 1600 BC, some four hundred and fifty years before 1250 BC, the considered date of the fall of Troy – a detail Schliemann overlooked (but you know that from previous …. no, no, I’m not going to say it).  However, the artwork and design of the masks and jewellery made it clear that the Mycenaean civilisation was highly sophisticated (and ‘deep-golden’ or ‘rich in gold’ as another translation has it).

There are some connections in Homer with Mycenaean artefacts, particularly with the Iliad and armour  For example Odysseus “put over his head a helmet fashioned of leather … and on the outer side the white teeth of a tusk-shining boar were close sewn one after the other …” (Iliad 10.261) – the very kind of helmet found at Dendra, near Mycenae (see pic below).  Also, “Now Aias came near, carrying like a wall shield of bronze and sevenfold ox-hide” (Iliad 7.219) – a Mycenaean shield (see the body shields engraved in the dagger at Grave Circle A – pic below). Unfortunately, not all the references in the Iliad follow archaeological patterns and there are discrepancies. There is reference to “locking spear by spear, shield by shield, so buckler leaned on buckler, helmet on helmet, man against man … so dense were they formed on each other …” (Iliad 13.131), which infers the operation of the phalanx, but it was not used by the Greeks until around the 9th century BC.  Homer refers to types of armour of various periods and iron of his own period, as if comparing the Mycenaean culture with his own.


Dendra armour (c 1400 BC)


Dagger from Grave Circle A (c 1600 BC) at Mycenae showing ‘wall shields’ covering whole body 

The finding of the Linear B tablets at Mycenae (and at Pylos and Knossos) by Sir Arthur Evans (and interpreted by Michael Ventris as Greek in 1952) was both encouraging and discouraging.  They indicate a developing culture with a written language within Mycenaean Greece during the period leading up to Homer’s siege of Troy.  However, they relate to administration of ‘royal’ palaces and make no mention of Homer’s royal heroes by name, which limits their value to prove the existence of Homer’s Trojan War but they do refer to Mycenaean forays into Aegean (Lesbos) which puts them in situ.


Following the discovering of Troy, nine main settlements (I-IX) have been excavated over the years. Troy VI and VIIA bear a certain resemblance to Mycenae – Troy VI is high and wealthy, Troy VIIa is heavily fortified.  How do we know the dates of these cities?  Styles of Late Helladic IIIA pottery (1400 -1300 BC) and Late Helladic IIIB pottery (1300 -1200 BC) have been found by Carl Blegen, in Troy VI.  So although this ‘Mycenaean’ style pottery was made in Troy, Troy VI has a definite link with Mycenae.  This style disappeared from Troy around 1250 BC, the believed date of its destruction.  In Troy VIIb, a completely new style of pottery, alien to Mycenae, was found.  This originated from across the Dardanelles in the 12th century BC and possibly suggests new people at Troy.  So, if Homer’s Troy existed, it was prior to this period.


 Plan of citadels of Troy (grey is Troy I; yellow is Troy II; red is Troy VI)

However, Blegen was convinced that Troy VI was destroyed by an earthquake, as the walls had shifted, and Troy VIIa by fire (although he accepted that there had been a fire at Troy VI at some stage) and, therefore Troy VIIa was Homer’s Troy.  But Donald Easton has suggested that, although there was an earthquake, it possibly destroyed Troy VIIa and Blegen simply misinterpreted the signs of the wall movements.  Unfortunately, he refused to confirm that Troy VI was the city destroyed by the Greeks, commenting, “it simply gives us a nice opportunity for belief” (I just love that!).


Troy VI tower and east entrance to right

 Looking at Troy VIIa, it is very similar to Troy VI in build – as a fortification – with houses illustrating continuation of sturdy masonry in period of rebuilding.  In fact, it has been suggested that Troy VIIa is just another rebuilding of Troy VI. It does have ear-marks of siege about it – closely packed houses (unlike Troy VI), incorporating storage pithoi (large containers) let into floor for, perhaps, a special need for storage – even to the extent of restricting space within the building.  Was it preparing for siege?  Blegen believed so and this was another reason for his conclusion that Troy VIIa was Homer’s city of the Trojan War.  However, this preparation for siege at Troy VIIa may have be in defence against some other intruder (perhaps the later Sea People, as referred to by the Egyptians).

One problem with this, is that the whole of Troy VIIa is divided up into small enclosures and there is no Royal Palace, as there was (probably) in Troy VI.  This sounds rather like the King (if that is what he was) and his family are no longer in residence at Troy VIIa.



What Troy VI and its lower city may have looked like in the 13th century BC (270,00 sq m)

The next problem is dating.  Late Helladic IIIC pottery has since been found at Troy VIIa, which means it must have been in existence after 1190 BC which is too late for Homer’s War (the date of Homer’s War at 1250 BC is based on the fall of Mycenae shortly afterward in 1230 BC).  In this respect, Troy VIIa is unlikely to be Homer’s Troy which makes Troy VI favourite for Priam’s city. We also rely (not necessarily reliably) on the 5th century BC historian, Herodotus, and his dating of Homer and his Trojan War – the former, 400 years before his own time, and the latter, 800 years before his own time (but where he gets these dates from is anyone’s guess).

In addition, there have been excavations at Besik Bay, an inlet to the south of Troy, by Professor Korfmann (who, until his death, was working on the lower town at Troy VI).  This produced Mycenaean pottery and cremated bodies of the period around the Trojan War.  The cremations support Homer’s references, otherwise considered inconsistent with the believed Mycenaean practice of burial.  The Greeks may well have cremated their warriors to prevent the bodies being exhumed and despoiled by the Trojans.  The site is near to where the beach would have been in the 13th century BC, and close enough to Troy for a Greek encampment.  It is, of course, mere speculation and Korfmann is cautious about linking Homer and archaeology.  However, it does allow the imagination to wander.  He said, “I am sure, in the 13th century [BC] there several wars around and about the city of Troy but which one was Homer’s War, we will never know”.


Besik Bay – harbour controlled by Troy but where Mycenaean/Achaean fleet may have beached for the siege of Troy

So, what d’yer reckon?

It is clear that a large fortified city existed at Hisarlik in or around 1250 BC, at the time of Homer’s Trojan War, but because of its location at the entrance of the Dardanelles, it had control of a trade route to and from the Black Sea, and so such a fortification would not be particularly unusual. It would also be a very profitable city having such control and open to ‘take-over’ by wealth-seeking powers (of which Mycenae would have been one – having already taken over Minoan Crete in 1450 BC). Schliemann discovered its wealth in Troy II of 2500-2300 BC (click here for the Treasures of Troy) – too early for Homer’s Troy). However, there was, certainly, in existence in the 13th century BC, the wealth that Homer refers but whether it belonged to Homer’s heroes is unknown and will never be known unless something of reference to them appears in future excavations.

Archaeology shows that, if there was a Trojan War, Mycenae and the other cities named in the Iliad were, in the 13th century BC, large and strong enough to invade Troy.  However, there is very little in either Trojan or Mycenaean archaeology – or writing (Hittite texts and Linear B respectively) – to support the existence of Homer’s heroes or Homer’s Trojan War (the Hittites texts do stretch the imagination a bit – but that’s another story). Nor any mention of Helen ‘of Troy’ (well, of Sparta actually, being the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, until Paris, Prince of Troy, got his hands on her – if we are to believe Homer of course). All we can say is that Troy and a wealthy and powerful Mycenae existed and must have had its own warrior heroes.

So there you have it …. or not.


Next week: Travels in Turkey – going south from Troy, down the west coast of Turkey, to Ephesus, is the House of the Virgin Mary – not alot o’ people know that ……

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I have made a sensational discovery that the Ancient Greeks played golf some two thousand years before us. The reference to the game comes from some further work of Homer (c750BC but writing of the time of the Trojan War, c1250BC) that I fortuitously came upon in Alexandria. My translation of a passage is as follows:

And aged Chryses, priest of Phoibos Apollo,
did forsake prayer to his lord of the silver bow
and in secrecy went forth to play golf.
His first shot he smote strongly,
for it was blameless and he holed in one.
Such a stroke was from the hand of Zeus, gatherer of clouds.
Far striking Apollo spoke in anger to mighty Zeus,
‘Father Zeus, indeed I have done favour among mortals,
but why honour so this unworthy wretch
who steals away in secret to play golf
and avoids loyal duty of prayer to the gods?’
And in reply spoke Zeus, son of Kronos,
shaking his head with dark smile,
‘It is not with honour that I guided his ball,
but in frustration I have stricken him deep,
for in such secrecy of his play
to whom shall he dare boast of this great shot?’

Art Smth


SO WHAT EVER HAPPENED to Minoan Crete? Well, we don’t really know. All the palace sites, bar Knossos, we destroyed around 1450 BC but whether by man or nature is unclear. If by earthquake then why not rebuild as had been done before? It was once thought that the volcanic eruption at Thera (now Santorini, the island due north of Crete) may have caused the downfall of the Minoan civilization (either by volcanic ash or tsunami) but the dating doesn’t fit (the volcano was either between 1627-1600 BC according to radiocarbon dating or 1550 BC if you go along with Egyptian dating references).


Bronze Age ‘Greece’ 

What we do know is that the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece took over at Knossos. This is evidence by, amongst other ‘things’, Linear B (ancient Mycenaean Greek writing) which was found at Knossos. We need to be careful with the use of the word ‘Greek’ here. Greece didn’t exist as a country during this period (Bronze Age 3000-1100 BC); it was made of various kingdoms, one of which was Mycenae in the Argolid on the Peloponnese of mainland ‘Greece’ (or maybe Ahhiyawa – a name on Hittite texts which could possibly be the Mycenaeans -or Achaeans as Homer referred to them). Remember, this is prehistory so we can never be sure of anything. You can almost make it up as you go along and few could dispute you. Well, as long as you were vaguely sensible about it all……..

Now the citadel of Mycenae was impressive. It was a fortress and constructed by warmongers.

 mycn aerial

‘bird’s eye’ view of the citadel of Mycenae – very defensive (Grave Circle A is foreground centre – the circular bit, get it? – and the Lion Gate entrance is to the left of it in the shadows)

It’s not surprising that it took over Minoan Crete. It was a war-machine. And Crete was positioned central to three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa; so whoever controlled Crete, controlled a major trade link and have been very wealthy. Mycenae would have liked that idea.

lion gate 1

The Lion Gate entrance

lion gate2

and just to give you an idea of the size of the stones leading up to the actual Lion Gate, Sarah is a scale

Heinrich Schliemann excavated at Mycenae in 1876. But he didn’t discover it as its Lion Gate entrance had been open to the world to see from at least the beginning of the 19th century (the Brit. Edward Dodwell had drawn a picture of it in 1805). However, Schliemann opened up the entrance and the Grave circle A just inside the entrance. Here he found treasures buried with the dead, including the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’. Had he gazed on the face of Agamemnon as he claimed (allegedly). Well, no. If Agamemnon had existed it would have been around the destruction of Troy circa 1250 BC (more on that another day). The mask was dated to 1600 BC. Maybe Agamemnon’s great great great ….. grandfather. Maybe not.

gca sch

Grave Circle A as excavated (we’ll use that term loosely) by Schliemann in 1876

mask of aga

The ‘mask of Agamemnon’ – well, not really

Also at Mycenae we can find the impressive tholos tombs of Agamemnon (aka Treasury of Atreus – but it’s not a treasury) and Clytemnestra (circa 1250 BC). Clytemnestra was Agamemnon’s wife who did away with him on his return from the Trojan War (woman scorned and all that). This is according to Homer, an oral poet of around 750 BC (more on him later). They are, indeed, tombs but probably not of Agamemnon or Clytemnestra – it’s poetic licence (sorry, I’m being a spoilsport). On the other hand, check the dating out …………


The Tomb of Agamemnon, aka The Treasury of Atreus – well, neither actually

atreus insde

19th century drawing of the inside of the Tomb

So what happened to the Mycenaeans. Well we don’t really know (heard that before somewhere). They just came to an end and that’s that. If a Trojan War really did take place with the Mycenaeans and allies besieged Troy then it may well have weakened its position on the home front. Whilst the ‘cats are away’ in Troy, ‘the mice do play’ at home. The ‘mice’ may have been disgruntled peasant taking advantage of their masters’ absence. Who knows……


Next week: the forgotten tholos tombs at Mycenae

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

In December, I had been visiting the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to deposit some finds I had recently discovered in Tiryns.  On departing, I observed a member of the constabulary writing a parking ticket. I approached him and said, “I say, Officer, it’s Christmas, give a chap a break.”

He ignored me and continued writing the ticket.

“What a cad”, I uttered.

He stared at me, then at a worn tyre on the vehicle and wrote another ticket.

“Bounder”, I exclaimed.

He noted a cracked light and wrote another ticket.

“Scoundrel” I yelled.

He wrote another ticket for a faulty bumper.

Well, this went on awhile – the more abuse I gave him, the more tickets he wrote.  By the time I had run out of expletives he had planted some dozen or so tickets on the windshield of the vehicle.

Of course, it was no concern to me as my vehicle was parked around the corner.







Bronze Age Crete: the Minoans

Chronology of Bronze Age Crete (3000-1450 BC)

UNLIKE the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Hittites, the Cretans of the second millennium BC left little written history. What they did leave were inscriptions on clay which have become known as Linear A and Linear B. Linear A is as yet undeciphered, but probably developed from Cretan hieroglyphics (c.1900-1600 BC) and is possibly a form of the Cretan/Minoan language, from which Linear B most likely evolved. Linear B was deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952 as an early form of ancient Greek and of Mycenaean origin (Mycenae is on the mainland of Greece) rather than Minoan. It does not help a great deal with the historical background of Crete as it is administrative by nature but it does give an insight into the island’s commercial activities. Sort of annual accounts. Okay, better than nothing. But it can lead to some ambiguous (well, unproven) conclusions on Minoan life. But it’s fun to guess.

image001                              linear-B

Minoan Linear A                                                                           Mycenaean (Greek) Linear B

We’re not sure what the ancient Cretans were called in the Bronze Age, although it appears they may have been known as the ‘Kleftiu’ by the Egyptians. ‘Minoan’ Crete was a name given to the ancient islanders by Sir Arthur Evans simply based on the myth of their ancestor and founder, King Minos (more on him next week). Evans said, “To this early civilization of Crete as a whole I have proposed – and the suggestion has been generally adopted by the archaeologists of this and other countries – to apply the name ‘Minoan’.” In fact, he wasn’t the first to come up with the name but we won’t go there.


Arthur Evans at Knossos (painting from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford – the museum is well worth a visit for a ‘taste’ of the Minoan world)

It was Evans who first used the pottery styles found at Knossos to divide the Minoan civilization into three phases: Early, Middle and Late Minoan (EM, MM, LM respectively). The phases run nearly parallel to the tripartite division of Egyptian history into Old, Middle and New Kingdoms from 3000-1100BC. This does make it simpler ….. honest.

The basic tripartite scheme was further subdivided, based on pottery styles and stratigraphy, such that each of the three periods contained three or more divisions (EM I, II, III). These were then further subdivided into units indicated by letters of the alphabet (for example, LM IB). As additional excavations and studies have been undertaken this system has come under criticism for being too inflexible and partly inaccurate. But we won’t dwell on this.


Sir Arthur Evans immortalized at Knossos (and rightly so)

Chronology identity was not all Arthur Evans did. He made some groundbreaking discoveries on the Minoan civilization as a result of his excavations at the ‘palace’ site of Knossos, funded by his own wealth. However, he proceeded to reconstruct the palace using his own imagination of how it may have looked. This was partly for his own interest and partly for conservation purposes. This has proven somewhat controversial as, of course, it may be inaccurate. Also it has restricted further excavations at the site. But there are those who like it as it gives the site some perspective. You can make your own mind on that if you have been there or ever go there. Compare it with the non-reconstructed sites of Malia and Phaistos. Anyway, I digress.

Emergence of ‘palaces’

The Middle Minoan (MM) civilization has become known as a highly developed hierarchical society culminating in ‘palace’ buildings. But how did this come about? What must first be considered is what is meant by the word ‘palace’ in relation to the Middle and Late Minoan periods of Crete. A modern-day understanding of the word is a large and impressive residential building for a wealthy royal family. Minoan ‘palaces’ were certainly large and for the wealthy, but not necessarily for royalty, as it is not known who lived in them other than that they must have had some authority. They may have been Priests – or Priestesses – or Priest Kings if the ‘palaces’ were of a religious nature (they appear to have been involved in cult practices).  However, for convenience sake these Minoan buildings will be referred to as ‘palaces’ as their architectural design warrants the word. So there. The main palace sites (in descending order of size) were Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Kato Zakros. Also, recent discoveries at Galatas, and possible Petras, indicate smaller palatial residences. Of course, there are possibly more, as yet, undiscovered.


Minoan ‘palace’ sites on Crete

The old palaces of the proto-palatial period (c.1900-1700/1650BC) may have incorporated nearly all the basic features and infra-structures of the new palaces of the neo-palatial period (1700/1650-1450BC). These ‘features’ being a central court, west court, storage magazines, residential quarters, banquet hall, public/administrative apartments, cult rooms, theatral area and workshops. It is difficult to be certain due to the destruction of most the old palaces to make way for the new. Little of the old sites remain in evidence other than the foundation to the west façade of Phaistos, as here the new palace was not built immediately above it. After the destruction of the old palaces the neo-palatial sites, particularly at Knossos, Phaistos and Malia, were all enlarged with grander and more imposing styles.

The building of palaces required large surpluses of wealth, and it is this emergence of wealth that must account for the emergence of palaces. ‘Wealth’ may be defined as possession of goods for their desirability and not for their usefulness. For example, gold is desirable but not always of great use compared with practical or domestic items of bronze or ceramics. Okay, it’s otherwise known as ‘greed’.


North entrance to the ‘palace’ of Knossos … er, well, not exactly 3000 years old, but about 100 years old as this was the reconstruction by Sir Arthur Evans – so it may not have look anything like this (useful, huh?)

But how was this wealth obtained? When land no longer becomes readily available to all due to an increase in population, inequalities develop and those with no land become labourers. This leads to the possibility of the beginning of a hierarchy. As time goes on, specific individuals who are able to best exploit the ‘inequalities’ become the elite. These elite ‘families’ then compete within themselves for power and one way to exercise power is to display wealth by way of hospitality through dinner parties or gift-giving (xenia). So the elite needed investment and this leads to a revolution in agricultural products, centralization, movement of surplus, redistribution, rapid population growth and a more organized/controlled settlement. Otherwise known as ‘power’. You know the feeling …..


Here’s the throne room at Knossos, created …… er, 100 years ago by Arthur Evans

throne rm

Here’s the 3000 year old throne room at Knossos as Evans found it 100 years ago (1900 actually) – the throne and benches were there but that’s about it

Initially farmers only needed to grow only enough to keep the immediate family alive from year to year which may assume some surplus to ensure survival. Also the family produced domestic goods such as pots and utensils for their own use and essential to their own needs. This would extend to less domesticated luxury goods. As farms increased in size, both in acreage and population, so too did the community, and distribution of excess produce and luxury goods led to wealth. Yummy.


The possible ‘throne room’ (or area as ‘el fresco’) at Malia from the central court – this is something like Knossos may have looked like if Evans hadn’t reconstructed some of it (ignore the object centre/right foreground – it’s a cannon ball but Venetian, not Minoan!)

Due to its position in the Mediterranean, Crete would have had some contact with overseas travellers from the surrounding continents, Asia, Africa and Europe, and there is evidence of trade connections with these regions. There must be a close link between social and commercial progress: trade in various products with other countries brought in new ideas which led to more trade, both within Crete and outside, which led to an increase in wealth for the traders. The finding of sealstones (mostly by Evans) on some sites indicated movement and identification of goods, which required development of administration in a land becoming more organized (Linear A – pay attention: see above). Such development would require employment of labourers and craftsmen to keep up with the volume of demand. Larger houses would have been built to accommodate the wealthy. Get it?


The palace site of Phaistos (central court in far background) – also without Arthur Evans reconstructions

Destruction and coming of the Mycenaeans

It is not known for certain what caused the demise of the Minoan civilization. One suggestion was a tsunami from the Theran volcanic eruption but the dating doesn’t match; another is earthquake but the island has survived those before. All that is known is that around 1450BC a disaster struck the island of Crete and its civilization came to an end and the Mycenaeans from the Argolid of the eastern Peloponnese on mainland ‘Greece’ appeared to have taken control of Knossos (possibly taking advantage of earthquake-weakened Minoan defences). Whether the Mycenaeans were a part of this destruction is not clear but they may well have been covetous of the Minoan wealth and trade links. Makes sense.


Earthquake damage at the small palace site of Galatas

The Mycenaeans remained in Knossos for around 200 years before another unknown disaster brought an end to the island’s civilized world. But more on the Mycenaeans another day.

For more info on various Minoan sites in Crete click here


Next week: The Minoans and mythology


I see that the Plantagenet Alliance has had the same result as Richard III did at Bosworth – failure. At the Judicial Review hearing the High Court decided that it was not necessary for consultation with ‘other parties’ about the reburial of Dick’s bones. One of the judges, Lord Justice Ouseley, remarked: “Richard III would have raised an eyebrow if he’d been told there would be public consultation on his reburial 500 years on. Kings of that era weren’t democrats.”  Humour from a judge? … or cynicism for the whole lengthy process … or just stating a fact?. So Leicester Cathedral it is. A 15th century-style gold-plated crown has even been commissioned by the historian, Dr John Ashdown-Hill, for the funeral ceremony. Nice touch but merely ‘gold-plated’? – it is hardly befitting a monarch! Anyway, it is/was being displayed in York just to show its connection has not been forgotten before going ‘on tour’ around the UK.


Richard III’s gold-plated funeral Crown

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I met my good friend Jasper Rochweiller yesterday and he said to me:

“I say Artemus, old boy, close shave the other day. My good lady sent me out to purchase a bag of fresh snails from our local delicatessen. She was determined to expand our culinary delights. Well, I bought the bag of snails but on the way back I meet some of my students who insisted I went for drink with them. Rude to say no and one, of course, lead to another, and so it went on for over two hours. Got back home a little worse for wear. As I put my key in the door the bottom fell out of the bag containing the snails – it had been sitting on a beer covered table and got rather wet – and all the snails fell to the ground. At the very same time the good lady opened a window and asked me in no uncertain manner where the devil I had been all this time.

Ignoring her, I looked down at the snails on the ground and said in very loud voice, “Nearly home boys.””