|© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE
|Last updated December 25, 2004
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This page is part of the "tools" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "tools" section provides historical and geographical context (chronology, maps, entries on characters and locations) for Socrates, Plato and their time. By clicking on the minimap at the beginning of the entry, you can go to a full size map in which the city or location appears. For more information on the structure of entries and links available from them, read the notice at the beginning of the index of persons and locations.
Main city of the Island of Crete,
south of the Ægean Sea (area 4).
Cnossus was the capital city of the kingdom of the legendary king Minos, who gave his name to a highly developed civilization of the Bronze Age, the Minoan civilization, that flourished from about 3000 to 1400 B. C. in the island of Crete and was rediscovered at the beginning of the century by the digs of Sir Arthur Evans (1900) who uncovered the remnants of the palace of Cnossus. More archaeological work through this century has allowed us to know a lot more about this civilization and the palaces that were at the center of its organization. If texts written in a system called Linear A used in Crete from the XVIIIth to the XVth century B. C. have not yet been deciphered, those more recent (XIVth to XIIth century B. C.) written in the syllabic script known as Linear B have been deciphered in 1952 and give us a vivid picture of the life in palaces such as that of Cnossus.
For the Greeks of classical times, Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa,
sister of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes,
and daughter of Agenor, king of Sidon (or Tyre,
in Phoenicia), himself the son of Poseidon and a descendant of Zeus and Io
through his mother Libya. He was praised as a model
lawgiver, the author of the most admired laws of Crete, that he was said to
owe Zeus himself, whom he kept visiting every nine years in the cave of Mount
Ida where the god was born and had been raised (see Homer's Odyssey, XIX,
178-179, quoted in the spurious dialogue Minos,
at 319b ;
see also the beginning of the Laws, at I,
624b, sq, which allude to these verses in a context of praise for Minos'
laws). It is whit this in mind that Plato had the whole dialogue of the Laws
take place during a walk from Cnossus to the cave of Zeus on Mount Ida (Laws,
I, 625b), maybe to tell us readers that we shouldn't wait for Zeus to dictate
us laws, but rather raise ourselves toward Zeus, move toward the divine, by
putting our logos, the divine part in us, to task to draw laws for our
As a result of his justice as a king, Minos was, along with his brother Rhadamanthus who had served as a judge in Crete, one of the judges of the souls of the dead in Hades (see Apology, 41a, and the whole myth at the end of the Gorgias, especially Gorgias, 523e-524a).
Another part of Minos' story that is worth mentioning is that of the Minotaur. This creature, half man, half bull, was the product of the love of Minos' wife, Pasiphae; daughter of Helios (the sun), for a bull that had been sent to Minos by Poseidon to show him that he favored him as king of Crete (this bull, that Minos, according to his pledge to Poseidon, should have offered in sacrifice to the god, had been rendered furious by Poseidon after Minos broke his vow at the sight of so beautiful an animal and decided to keep it in his flock ; known as the bull of Crete, he was later captured by Heracles as part of his labors and brought back to Grece where he was set free by Hera and was eventually killed by Theseus in the plain of Marathon. When Minos saw the result of his wife's unnatural love, he asked Dædalus to build a huge palace, the Labyrinth, in which he locked the Minotaur up. Later, Minos waged a war against Athens to avenge his son Androgeus, winner at the games organized in that city by Ægeus (Theseus' father), who had been killed as a result when required by a jealous Ægeus to go fight the bull of Marathon which was laying waste in the region (or, according to other sources, assassinated by jealous rivals). In order to end the war, the Athenians, weakened by famine and plague, had to accept Minos' conditions that every nine years (or each year, according to other sources) they would send to Crete seven youths and seven maidens as a tribute to be offered the Minotaur (see Plutarch's Life of Theseus, XV, 1). It is Theseus who put an end to this obligation : he volunteered to be part of one shipment and, once in Crete, he killed the Minotaur and managed to get out of the Labyrinth with the help of a thread that Ariadne, the daughter of Minos who had fallen in love with him, had given him before entering the maze to mark his way while proceeding. He was thus able to bring back his companions alive to Athens.
This story is in the background of Plato's Phædo, which starts with a reference to it (58a-b), maybe to suggest the reader a comparison between Theseus saving the youth of Athens and Socrates, accused of corrupting it, and thus seen by the Athenians as a kind of new Minotaur (see in that respect, 117b at the end of the dialogue, where, just before drinking the hemlock, Socrates is said to "look at the man [who hands him the poison over] from under with a bulllike look (tauredon hupoblepsas)") while he might in fact have rather been a new Theseus intent on saving Athens' youth.