Minos of Cnossos: king, tyrant and thalassocrat
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In this study, I show that the figure of Minos, the mythic ruler of Bronze-Age Crete, functioned in Greek literature of the Archaic Age to the fifth century BCE as a mythical conduit elucidating three notions central to the interests of Greek thought: epic kingship, tyranny, and thalassocracy. A destructive-minded individual and judge in epic, Minos resonates with the portrayal of Homeric monarchs, who display destructive behavior toward their subjects, yet bestow upon them the benefits of adjudication. Further, Minos is deliberately exploited as a precedent by Odysseus, as the hero resolves to use self-help against the suitors rather than a settlement in court. As a result, the epic representation of Minos is far from being marginal to the Homeric poems, as usually assumed. In fifth-century Athenian literature the character is demonstrably portrayed as a tyrant. The shift in the portrayal of Minos is only apparently inconsequent. Artistic and literary evidence is mustered to suggest that the Athenians perceived Minos’ epic role of judge as incompatible with their administration and conception of justice, and that adjudication could serve as a springboard for the achievement of tyranny. In his trajectory from judge to tyrant, Minos thus illustrated the fine line separating justice from tyranny. Again in the fifth century, Minos is envisaged as a thalassocrat. I contend that his thalassocracy is a construct developed by fifth-century historians and based upon earlier traditions that associated Minos’ sea power with the attainment of the status of supreme monarch. Minos’ thalassocracy instead had the quite different implication that its holder would incline toward tyranny. Minos’ thalassocracy, thus, is relevant to Athens maritime empire, also thought of as a tyrannical rule. An ominous model for Athens, Minos’ thalassocracy is both denied and accorded primacy among the sea powers by the historians. Whether accepted or denied, Minos constituted a reference point for the current Athenian archē.