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The Thera Catastrophe - Consequences for European Civilization

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The seismic forces of the Thera volcano which destroyed the Minoan civilization thereby checked the minoanization of the Aegean world and therefore its possible, eventual spread all over the Mediterranean and even to Europe.

The consequent rise of the Helladic civilization with its radically different ways of thought, life and art, which were transmitted to us via the classical Greco-Roman cultures, has had a decisive influence over modern Western society. “What would have happened, if that had not happened?"



The Thera catastrophe in the second millennium B. C. is not only the greatest natural disaster that in historical times has overtaken the Mediterranean area: it was also, in my opinion, a series of events with enormous consequences, radically altering the course of history and the entire pattern and character of western civilization. What we call European civilization, that is, one essentially based on the Hellenic and Roman cultures and with their underlying concepts and ideals, would certainly not have existed in its present form, if the Thera volcano had remained quiet -or had not existed at all.

These assertions might seem bold, or even fantastic. But I ask you to take a look together with me at the facts and at the inferences that may be drawn from these facts.


Let it first be said that I am aware of the fact that I would be walking on hot ground if I were to try to discuss with volcanologists and other representatives of natural science the problems of interpretation of the visible effects of the activities of the Thera volcano, viz. the number of disasters, their exact nature and their consequences, the length of intervals between them, etc. I shall not do this, because I am not a specialist in such matters and, above all, because what interests an archaeologist and historian is, of course, the effects on civilization, the historical consequences of these happenings.



Long before attention was drawn to the Thera catstrophe, archaeologists working in the Aegean area had observed a number of destruction levels in settlements, some of which were concluded to be due to seismic causes. Since the beginning of this century, more and more evidence of this nature has come forth, and now it forms a distinct pattern.


The principal evidence of this nature may be summarized as follows (cf. Page 1970; Hiller 1975).

(I)      End of MM (Middle Minoan) II B (= III A), c. 1600 B.C.

Crete: Seismic destruction of the First Palaces at Knossos and Phaistos

(II)     Before the end of MM III B, c. 1560 B. C.

Crete: Seismic disturbance at Knossos and Phaistos

Melos : Phylakopi II destroyed

Thera: Seismic destruction of Middle Cycladic settlement at Akrotiri

(III)     Before the end of LM (Late Minoan) I A, c. 1520 B.C.

Crete: Seismic disturbances at Knossos and at numerous East Cretan sites: Zakros, Palaikastro, Myrtos, etc.

Kythera: Kastri I destroyed

Melos: Phylakopi III : 1 destroyed

Rhodes: Trianda I destroyed

Thera: Seismic destruction of Minoan settlement at Akrotiri

(IV)     Before the end of LM I B, c. 1470 B.C.

Crete: Seismic disturbance at Knossos, total destruction at nearly all Eastern sites, including the palaces at Mallia, Phaistos, Hagia Triada, and Zakros, and the towns Gournia and Palaikastro

Kythera: Kastri II destroyed

Keos: Hagia Irini destroyed by earthquake

Rhodes: Trianda II destroyed by earthquake

There are reasons for ascribing these four catastrophe horizons, these breaks in Aegean history, to one and the same cause, viz. the activities of the Thera volcano. What were the consequences from a cultural, political, and social point of view?

In the earlier part of the second millennium B.C., Minoan Crete had undoubtedly the most advanced - that is, the most differentiated and many-faceted - civilization in the Aegean world. In comparison, the two other Aegean cultures, the Middle Helladic of the Greek mainland and the Middle Cycladic of the islands, appear much simpler and less developed.

Already at an early stage, Crete had commercial contacts with the Cycladic islands, and these connexions were intensified during the later Middle Minoan phases, as shown by a strong Cretan influence in the art of Phylakopi in Melos. And in the next period, LM I A, we have evidence of a real political expansion in this direction. Archaeological research has made it increasingly evident that from the beginning of the LM I A period a kind of Cretan colonization set in on the islands. Clear evidence of this kind has been observed in Kythera (Kastri), Melos (Phylakopi), Thera (Akrotiri), and Rhodes (Trianda). And there are indications suggesting that the same was the case in Keos (Hagia Irini), in Samos, and in Karpathos (cf. Furumark 1950, 200f.).


The comparatively homogeneous Cycladic civilization that was now subjected to a strong Minoan influence retained, of course, much of its native character, but the settlements until now explored are Minoan in everything essential: we have a splendid and most illuminative example in Akrotiri, and the evidence from Phylakopi points in the same direction.

Then came, before the end of the LM I A period, the volcanic disaster of Thera that destroyed the settlement of Akrotiri. This catastrophe seems to be the same as that which in Crete has left traces at many sites in the Eastern part of the island and also at Knossos. At the same time, destructions took place in Kythera (Kastri), Melos (Phylakopi), and Rhodes (Trianda), even if in these cases the cause is not yet clearly established.

All these settlements were rebuilt or repaired after the disaster, with the sole exception of Akrotiri which remained covered by volcanic products. On the other sites in Crete and elsewhere, life continued as before after the catastrophe, and the cultural phase known as LM I B developed. There is clear evidence that in this period (as already in LM I A) Cretan power was concentrated in Knossos and that the lords of Phaistos, Zakros, Mallia, etc. must have been some kind of vassals to the central power (Furumark 1950, 249f.).


The Greek mainland was drawn into the sphere of Minoan influence only at a relatively late stage, that is, during the later part of the Middle Helladic period. An eloquent witness to this are the earlier Shaft Graves at Mycenae. The increasing Minoan influence, as apparent chiefly in products of art, reached its zenith in the Mycenaean II A period ( = LM I B).


It was in this period that the fourth, and greatest, catastrophe occurred, a devastating disaster of enormous proportions. A tremendous wave of destruction - earthquakes, followed by fires, rains of volcanic ashes - swept over Eastern Crete and buried its palaces and towns, killing a great part of the population and, of course, of the livestock, spoiling the crops and making the farmlands sterile for a considerable time. The greater part of the island was lying waste, crippled and defenceless, and was an easy prey for invaders. At Knossos the destruction was also felt, even if there it was less violent (cf. Hood, 1971). At the same time, seismic catastrophes occurred in the west (Hagia Irini in Keos) and the east (Trianda in Rhodes) of the Aegean area.


Now, shortly after this disaster, but still in the LM I B period, we may observe at Knossos signs of the beginning of a new era, of a totally new political situation. As has become increasingly clear, not only the neighbourhood of the Palace but also the Palace itself was damaged by the LM I B disaster. After it, repairs and partial redecoration of the walls took place. The outstanding example is the so-called Procession Fresco, and to the same period belong the Campstool (or Loving Cup) representation and the Shield Fresco. The separate elements of these wall-paintings are in the Minoan tradition, but the earlier rules of composition have been dissolved, giving place to tectonic principles, to an arrangement of the figures in a collateral row or antithetically. The same tendencies may be observed in a contemporary category of pottery, stylistically classed as LM II A (but chronologically belonging to the late LM I B period), as well as in glyptic pieces (Furumark 1950, 250f. 251.; 1965, 85-98; 1977 passim).


This new trend is then logically continued in the next period, LM II : it develops into a stiff and formal style, as represented in wall-painting by the Throne Room pictures and in pottery by the Palace Style. This ceramic class is then followed by the early Late Minoan III A style characteristic of the time when the Palace was finally destroyed by enemies, round about 1400 B.C. (1)

We may, consequently, observe at Knossos, from the late LM I B period onwards, an unbroken, consistent, and accelerated development in a quite new and basically un-Minoan direction. And, indeed, we know the underlying cause: Knossos and its realm had been conquered soon after the volcanic catastrophe of c. 1470 B.C. It is obvious, moreover, from the existence in the Palace of about 9000 clay tablets written in Greek in the Linear B script and dating from its final period, that the conquering new masters were Mycenaean Greeks - as were also those who later put an end to Knossos.

The change in administrative language and script, Old Cretan and Linear A being superseded by Greek and Linear B, is indeed highly significant. The administrative system as such was, of course, a continuation of the old Minoan tradition, but its organization and contents are largely different, actually mirroring a society with several essentially mainland traits, but clad in a Minoan dress. This phenomenon is, indeed, fundamentally the same as that which we may observe in the late palatial art (cf. Furumark (1977), 1976).


What happened at Knossos during its last about fifty years is not only a consequence of a change in political history, the shift of power from Minoan to Mycenean domination. Fundamentally it is much more, for what lies behind it is a clash between two radically different types of civilization, the Minoan and the Helladic. During the last forty years, I have on various occasions tried to define the characteristics of Helladic and Minoan civilization and of the fusion of both in the Late Helladic period, that called Mycenaean culture. I have studied the existing evidence in art and architecture and in contemporary written documents, and it has produced a consistent picture of the structure and life of society and of religious beliefs, of artistic ideals. Finally, as a consequence of this, I have endeavoured to reconstruct, as it were, the general way of thinking, the "outlook" the perception of reality characteristic of these civilizations.

Now this may sound somewhat pretentious. And I hasten to add that of course I know that every such interpretation is dependent on modern thought and, consequently, can in no way be claimed to be identical with the historical reality. But the important thing is that clear and consistent definitions may be drawn, even if the categories of thought which we apply are our own.

The Helladic civilization is typically primitive European: it is a sturdy agricultural culture with features such as the megaron house and a simple but dearly built-up pottery with a tectonic, geometrically constructed decoration. The social and political system may be described as a number of more or less independent village communities, ruled by petty kings and elders - one is reminded of the conditions in later Greece, from Geometric times onwards.


The Minoan civilization is entirely different, not only in being enormously more complicated and many-faceted, but also in its basic traits. Already from the beginning of the palatial era, in the Middle Minoan I period, the palaces had a plan that has its ideal centre in the middle, in the court, towards which everything opens and which is approached from the outside only by devious corridors (Furumark 1965, 89f; (1977)). Private houses are constructed in a similar manner. The pottery is painted in "unity decoration", in an abstract, dynamic style in which the ornamentation encloses the entire pot and accentuates its three-dimensionality (Furumark 1941/72: 1, 112 - 213; Walberg 1976, 83 - 89; Walberg n.p.). The same dynamic spirit is apparent in the wall paintings, depicting stylized natural scenery, sports, or public ceremonies of a religious nature. There are no pictures with historical contents, no manifestations of royal power or great deeds. And everything is, as it were, floating - every picture is a nunc stans, in principle there is an endless extension, an accentuation of dimensionality, not of dimensions: the whole art and (paradoxically enough) the architecture are atectonic.

As to the Minoan spiritual life, we may note that the religion (as evidenced by art and Linear A texts) is also quite unlike other ancient ones: the principal deities are female, the cult was aniconic, and the goddesses appeared only in epiphany, called forth chiefly by means of ecstatic sacral dance, as well as by tree-shaking and baetylic rites. (2)


As I have already mentioned, the culture of the Greek mainland was drawn into the sphere of Minoan influence from the end of the Middle Helladic period onwards (1950, 185 - 192. 251f; cf. Dickinson 1977). The meeting with the superior Minoan culture coincided with the establishment of bigger and stronger kingdoms on the mainland, and it seems that the adopted Minoan features had the main purpose of expressing the power and wealth of these kings. Thus through the injection of Minoan elements the mainland culture became what we call Mycenaean, but it is important to note that this Mycenaean civilization always preserved intact its constitutive Helladic features.


To put it very briefly, these features were: tectonic structure in architecture and other arts, with static elements and addition of units, one subordinate to the other. The theme of subordination is apparent also in the social system: from the king downwards there is a stepped system of officials and classes of people. Thanks to the Linear B archives of Pylos, we have now a detailed insight into these conditions, which must have been essentially the same from the beginning.(3) But here also there is a Minoan heritage: the prototype of the system of book-keeping, here as at Knossos, are the Linear A records, as exemplified by the LM I B pre-catastrophe archives of Hagia Triada and Zakros. The themes of Mycenaean wall-paintings are also very illuminating: the main profane subjects are the royal pastimes, war and hunting.

The latest Knossos period, beginning late in LM I B with the rule of Greek invaders of mainland origin, is actually neither Minoan nor Mycenaean. It shows the meeting of early Mycenaean culture with the Minoan on Minoan ground. The mainlanders were, of course, culturally far inferior to their Minoan subjects. They naturally used the local handicraftsmen and artists, who still worked in their traditional forms and with their elaborate repertory. But the conquerors had new claims on the contents and composition of the pictures. The so-called Procession Fresco shows a collateral alignment of figures carrying sacral vessels: two such rows seem to meet in front of a goddess (probably the Minoan palace goddess Atano = Greek Athana), thus forming an antithetic composition. This type of representation is quite new in Crete, and so are chariot scenes of the same period (Alexiou 1964).


In the next phase, LM II, tectonic compositions are dominant, at the same time as the formal repertory has developed into a strictly abstract ornamental style. In the Throne Room the royal throne, that is, the king, is watched by antithetic stylized griffins, like the gods in contemporary representations. And the fine pottery of the period is represented by the grandiose and ornate Palace Style vases.


But - and it is important to remember this - there are practically no signs of Mycenaean influence in the ornamental repertory. When seen from a typological point of view, every element of LM II art can be shown to have Cretan antecedents. And the contemporary pottery style of the mainland, Myc. II B, is very unlike Cretan LM II. No, what has altered is the spirit, the intentions behind the art: it is on that level that we may see the Helladic, the Mycenaean element, which actually killed the true Minoan tradition in Crete. And it is only after the final destruction of Knossos, in LM III A ( = Myc. III A), that a Cretan influence is again apparent in the mainland pottery style (Furumark 1941 / 72 : 1, 495f. 504f).


The Mycenaean development in all fields is actually a struggle between the Helladic and the Minoan element. After the first contacts with the superior Cretan culture, the task became, as it were, to digest and to alter the Minoan elements according to the fundamental principles of Helladic civilization. This process was finished at the beginning of the Myc. III B period (c. 1300 B.C.), the real floruit of the Mycenaean era. At the same time, this historical process is one of expulsion - apparently in all fields of life - of the foreign, Minoan, elements. And after five hundred years Greek civilization had, at the beginning of the Geometric period, again returned, in principle, to the Middle Helladic ideals.

It was on this Helladic ground that the later Greek civilization was built up, to be directly followed by the Roman and the present European cultures. The glory that was Minoan Crete was, after all, when seen from a wider historical aspect, only a picturesque episode: we see it as a beautiful dream, a remote Atlantis, no more.

But what caused the destruction and disappearance of Minoan civilization? The answer is obvious: the seismic forces of the Thera volcano. If the final catastrophe of c. 1470 B.C. had not taken place, the civilization known as Mycenaean would never have developed as it did. Instead, the Minoan culture, spiritually and materially vastly superior to its Helladic and Cycladic contemporaries, might have continued its expansion, penetrating into the marrow of the other Aegean civilizations and altering them radically. We have, indeed, examples of the early stages of such a process, the settlements of Phylakopi and Akrotiri.


Let us try to imagine a completely minoanized Aegean world, the culture of which expanded over the Mediterranean, and thence to other areas, to our Europe. Let us try to think away the Greek and Roman classical cultures. What would then our world have looked like? Of course we do not know, except that it would have been vastly different.

I am well aware of the fact that it is impossible to predict history and that questions like "what would have happened, if that had not happened" are meaningless from a strictly scientific point of view. But let us still try to make an experiment of thought - I think that it might be profitable.


If I were to characterize in general terms the Minoan and the Helladic civilizations, from the manner in which they have expressed themselves to us, I would like to state that they represent not only radically different systems of art, of society, and of religion, etc., but fundamentally, two entirely different ways of looking at reality, and of thinking. It is actually like dealing with two different worlds: I would call them, respectively, the round world and the square world.



The round, the Minoan, world is, as I once put it (1965, 90), negatively anthropocentric: man, himself a negligible quantity, stands in the centre of an unlimited universe, he embraces the objects of reality in a sweeping manner, he records the moving phenomena in a momentary way, and he has no interest in what we call history.


The square, that is, the Helladic, the Greco-Roman, and the modern world, is, as it were, seen from the outside: man expresses himself by tectonic construction, by addition of separate parts, by dimensions of static units; he perceives and represents reality as a series of connected stages and is, consequently, deeply concerned with history.



I admit that it is plainly impossible to imagine what the present world would have been like if it had been ruled by the conceptions of the round, the Minoan, world. And it is, of course, impossible to say if these ideals would have lasted, even if there had been no Thera catastrophe or other fatal accidents. But it is rather amusing, I think, to play with the thought.

And such speculations have a serious aspect also. Because the Thera catastrophe, of which we have such palpable signs, is a healthy reminder of how dependent the fates of human beings are on a force called - for want of a better name - blind chance. It may also serve to remind us of the fact that nobody can predict happenings in the human sphere, that all historical prognoses are bound to be wrong. A sad message, perhaps. Perhaps one of hope.


- (1).   M. R. Popham and others, following him, have argued that the catastrophe did not occur till in the LM III A 2 period, towards 1375 B.C. (cf. Popham, 1966, 1967, 1970). I still adhere to a somewhat earlier date, LM III A 1 (cf. Furumark 1941/72 : 2, p. 83 f.), and I think that this chronology is actually confirmed by the finds in the "Unexplored Mansion" (Popham 1973), which I have inspected personally. I shall deal with the whole problem of Knossos chronology, including attempts to upset it (as lately by Hallager 1977), in an article to be published in Americal Journal of Archaeology.

- (2).   Furumark 1965, espec. pp. 91f., 97 f.; (1977). The Minoan religion and its problems will be treated in detail in my forthcoming book, Linear A and Minoan Religion (to be published in the Boreas series).

- (3).   Furumark (1977); cf. also the latest review of the evidence, in Hiller and Panagl 1976.


Source: "Thera and the Aegean World I" 
  Papers presented at the Second International Scientific Congress, Santorini, Greece, August 1978
Pages: pp. 667 - 674
Written by:  Arne Furumark
  Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
  Book information:
  ©Thera and the Aegean World
ISBN:  0 9506133 0 4  
Published by:  Thera and the Aegean World, 105-109 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 3UQ, England
Editor:  C Doumas
To order the book from 

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Last modified 2006-03-13 14:14