Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Book review: A History of Crete, Chris Moorey (2019)

I bought this volume at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD. The purchase is part of an exercise in education surrounding antiquity.

Moorey uses archaeological and literary sources to arrive at his findings, which begins in Neolithic times, progresses through the Minoan and Mycaenean era, includes sections on the Roman and Byzantine eras, as well as the Arab, Venetian and Ottoman occupations. It’s a satisfying work of history that ticks all the right boxes. Not only informative, the prose is lucid and attractive and has been properly edited by the publisher. 

I cannot find fault with it, but on the other hand large gaps in the records – especially during the early years of the period covered by the narrative – see Moorey often falling back on strings of qualifications of a kind that are commonplace, I have found, with studies in ancient history. In the case of Crete, even some of the writing systems that were used in the millennia prior to the birth of Christ cannot be read, which to a degree limits one’s understanding of the civilisation in question. Furthermore, much written testimony was burned when each subsequent wave of occupiers entered the community, as happened in the case of the records belonging to the Arab pirates who ruled Crete for 150 years (the Venetian records were, mercifully, saved when the Ottomans arrived). In addition, where written records exist they frequently relate to things beyond the scope of religion, culture, and politics. As in the case of other written systems, record-keeping for the sake of economic activity replaces subjects of more enduring interest.

For this reason, I’ll need to consult other books relating to the periods in question, I’ve decided, and remember seeing at Abbey’s a history of the Peloponnesian War that might serve my purposes. As a discrete subject, Crete is perhaps more interesting on account of the visual record – artefacts, paintings and such like – but as Moorey notes at the beginning of his book in some cases it’s been impossible for him to secure permission to reproduce important images. 

Cretan history intersects intimately with Greek and Roman history and lessons gleaned from other sources – the pacification of regions that resulted from Roman domination, for example – is also visible in this book. Rome’s reputation as a civilisation able to encourage industry, to promote trade, and to maintain a kind of consistent application of law is merited by the facts shown here. The Arabs’ tendency to plunder, like the Ottoman’s tendency to tax, means that one’s opinion of Rome’s influence goes up a notch. When the Byzantine Empire dissolved following the Ottoman conquests in Asia Minor, many notables fled to Crete. The Cretan El Greco fled to Spain in order to practice his art unmolested.

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