Late Minoan warrior, 1,700 – 1,450 BC.
Minoan soldiers parading captured Libyan enemies through the streets of Akrotiri, Thera.
A reconstruction of a padded Minoan helmet made of leather, linen, or felt.
A reconstruction of a Minoan crested boar tusk helmet, in purple and white. .
A Minoan charioteer in battle by Giuseppe Rava.
A reconstruction of the bronze helmet from Knossos.
A reconstruction of the Minoan finned helmet.
To judge from the available evidence, which is far from complete, the towns of bronze age Crete were not fortified. As yet no traces have been found of city walls or defensive towers at Knossos or at any of the other Minoan centres. We may be lulled by this into believing that life on Minoan Crete was entirely peaceful. In fact many of the sites were destroyed by burning and we have no way of knowing whether those fires were accidental, starting as a result of carelessness, or deliberate acts of arson by an enemy, or precipitated by a convulsive earthquake upsetting lamps and domestic hearths. The archaeological evidence is often ambiguous. On the other hand, destruction in about 1700 BC seems to have been very widespread and yet there was cultural continuity after the event: it seems much more likely that these destructions were the result of an earthquake rather than war or invasion.
Even so, we should not rule out the possibility – likelihood, even – of warfare between one Cretan city-state and another. It is known from documentation (e. g. Diodorus Siculus Book XVI and Polybius IX) that the Cretan city-states of the third and fourth centuries BC were at war with each other constantly, struggling for supremacy. Bitter fighting over long periods may leave no archaeological trace. We also know that the Minoans were equipped for war. Linear B tablets mention tunics reinforced with bronze, and the Minoans probably had their own version of the corslet, to judge from the tunic ideograms. Bronze helmets were made in eight pieces: four to make the conical crown with its mount for a horsehair or feathered plume, two cheek-pieces which hung down in front of the ears, and two other pieces which may have protected the back of the neck; one such helmet was found at Sanatorion near Knossos. Similarly shaped helmets were also made out of boar’s tusks, just as depicted in an ivory plaque of a warrior’s head from Arkhanes and as described by Homer on the Cretan hero Meriones. Asocket on the helmet’s crown was a mount for a crest or plume. Remains of a Minoan boar’s tusk helmet were found in a tomb at the Zafer Papoura cemetery at Knossos.
The Lion Hunt Dagger from Shaft Grave IV at Mycenae, dating to around 1550 and produced in Crete, shows three shield shapes: the figure-of-eight shape which appears in Knossian frescoes, rectangular and rectangular with a curved raised section on the top. These shields were light and made of cattle hides stretched over wooden frames, with at least one handle-strap on the back. The hair was left on the hides, presumably for the sake of the texture and pattern and perhaps also for totemic reasons. The lion hunters are shown with their shields hung over one shoulder, the handle-strap over their heads, to free both hands for spear-throwing. Shields are never mentioned on archive tablets, unlike other items of weaponry, which suggests that every man was allowed, and probably expected, to keep and maintain his own shield.
The Minoans had daggers and swords, some of them richly decorated. At Mallia a beautiful matching set of sword and dagger was found. The sword handle was covered in gold sheet decorated top and bottom with an incised herringbone design, the pommel being fashioned out of a large piece of rock crystal. Since the sword and dagger were found close to a ceremonial leopard-axe, it may be that all these weapons from the Mallia temple had a ceremonial rather than a military use. A pair of long, rapier-like swords with rounded hilts was also found in the Mallia temple, buried, perhaps as a deliberate foundation offering, below the latest paved floor in the northwest quarter. They are of a type which is known to have been in use by 1500 BC and which is also found in Mycenean shaft graves. One of the sword-hilts was richly decorated with a circular gold sheet showing a short-haired acrobat performing a somersault. It is possible that some of the acrobats performed gymnastic feats with swords, perhaps doing handstands and somersaults over swords planted point-upwards in the ground.
A plain and functional hilt on a short sword from the Zafer Papoura cemetery is interesting because of its laminated construction. The bronze of the blade and handguard continues through the centre of the hilt and pommel as a central layer, which must have given it far greater strength than some of the ornamental swords. Shaped ivory plates were riveted to each side of the bronze sheet to thicken the handle and make it comfortable to hold; additional pieces of bone were stuck on to the outside of the ivory plates to make the rounded shape of the pommel. Functional and tough, this may well have been a standard design for a ‘working’ sword.
One of the finest pieces of Minoan weaponry to have survived in Crete is the sword from the so-called Chieftain’s Tomb at Knossos. The sword hilt is superb, with a delicately worked detailed pattern covering the whole surface of the goldplated handle and a carefully turned piece of agate for a pommel.
The design consists of a lion hunting and bringing down a goat in a mountain landscape – a classic struggle scene – edged with a border of running spirals. Some very fine Minoan gold sword hilts were found at Mycenae. One clasped the top of the blade with two eagles’ heads, and the gold plate was patterned with scale-like depressions soldered to hold inlays of lapis lazuli.
Some of the Minoan daggers exported to mainland Greece and probably Anatolia had bronze blades decorated with inlays of gold and silver against a background of black niello. The Lion Hunt Dagger is the finest of these, with a scene on one side of five Minoan hunters facing a charging lion, while two other lions run away towards the dagger point. The hunters are armed with spears, shields and a bow. On the other side a lion seizes a gazelle, while four other gazelles escape. These superb Minoan daggers and swords were undoubtedly highly prized in the ancient world. A tablet found far away at Mari in Mesopotamia mentions a weapon adorned with lapis lazuli and gold and describes it as ‘Caphtorite’. The Egyptians called Crete ‘Kefti’, ‘Keftiu’ or ‘the land of the Keftiu’, while in the Near East Crete was known as ‘Caphtor’: it is as Caphtor that ancient Crete appears in the Old Testament. ‘Caphtorite’ clearly means ‘Cretan’. The similarity of the words ‘Caphtor’, ‘Caphtorite’ and ‘Keftiu’ strongly implies that the Minoans themselves used something like the word ‘Kaftor’ as a name for their homeland.
The Minoans used chariots in battle. The shape of their chariots is clearly shown in the ideogram for ‘chariot’ on the Linear B tablets. The Minoan chariot was the same as the Mycenean chariot depicted on a fresco at Pylos. It had a lightweight body, with sides and front possibly made of wickerwork or layers of hide on a wooden frame, and two simple four-spoked wheels mounted on a central axle. A wooden bar or frame extended forwards between the two ponies who drew the chariot along. It seems from the detailed descriptions of chariot spare-parts at Pylos as if the aristocracy had chariots equipped with special wheels; they are described as ‘Followers’ wheels’. Whether these had extra fittings such as silver inlays on the spokes or were painted a different colour is not known.
The earliest renderings of these very lightweight and probably fast war chariots appear on sealstones of the New Temple Period. Professor Stylianos Alexiou suggests that both the chariot and the horse were introduced from Egypt; they had been introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos kings who came from Asia, and contact between Hyksos Egypt and Knossos has been proved from other finds. Certainly the development of Minoan technology was in many ways stimulated by contacts with other cultures