City of Mycenae Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Mycenae was one of the most important cultural and political centers during the Heroic Age in Greece. Mycenaean civilization is the term used for the era of Greek civilization immortalized in the myths and legends of the Trojan War; to classical Greeks, it was the formative era of their history and cultural identity.

Summary of Event

In his epics the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), Homer recounted that Mycenae was a city rich in gold. As a general rule, the claims of myth are found to be exaggerated compared with real life, but when excavations of the city began in 1876, it became clear that this city did contain more gold than any other Greek site. The excavations further corroborated Homer’s assertions that Mycenae was a powerful city as well as a focal point of the dominant civilization in Greece from 1600 to 1100 b.c.e. Perseus (fl. twenty-first century b.c.e.) Aeschylus Agamemnon

The city itself was located in the northeastern corner of the plain of Argos between two mountains, Mount Prophet Elias to the north and Zara to the south. According to legend, it was founded by the hero Perseus in the twenty-first century b.c.e. Perseus was said to be the son of Zeus and Danaë and was the legendary slayer of the Gorgon, Medusa. When his great-grandson Atreus, son of Pelops, was elected to rule, his brother Thyestes was consumed by jealousy and entered into a love affair with Atreus’s wife. In revenge, Atreus killed Thyestes’ children and served them as a banquet for their father. After Thyestes had eaten the meal and then learned of its contents, he cursed Atreus, his children, and his children’s children. Indeed, according to the Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777) by the playwright Aeschylus, the curse was borne out. When Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, returned from the Trojan War, his wife, Clytemnestra, murdered him in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia in order to sail for Troy. Eight years later, their son Orestes avenged his father’s murder by killing Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. According to Aeschylus, Orestes was then pursued by the Furies, avenging his matricide. Finally, at a trial in Athens, Athena declared that Orestes was not blameworthy for his deeds because the father was the true parent of the child, while the mother’s womb was merely the container of the growing fetus. Orestes returned to Mycenae, which was already in decline.

The site of Mycenae was first occupied in the Neolithic period, but the civilization known as Mycenaean belongs to the Late Bronze Age. The first palace complex on the site was probably built c. 1600-c. 1550 b.c.e., at the beginning of the Late Helladic period, with the peak of building occurring during the Late Helladic IIIA period. Mycenaean civilization per se came to an end at the end of the Late Helladic IIIB period, although the site remained inhabited through Late Helladic IIIC.

Among the oldest of the monuments on the site are the Cyclopean walls that surround the citadel of Mycenae. It was long alleged that Perseus built these walls with the help of the Cyclops, one-eyed giants mentioned in Homer, because the raising of such monumental walls—22 feet (6.7 meters) thick—seemed beyond the power of any human being to build. In actuality, these walls were probably constructed around 1340 c.e. by humans who used ramps to push and pull the blocks of stone into place.

The entrance to the citadel, the Lion Gate, is one of the oldest pieces of monumental sculpture in the Western world. It is noteworthy for its corbel vaulting with sculpted lions. The corbel vaulting consists of blocks of stone carefully placed so that each projects a little beyond the one below it. This creates an empty triangular space over the lintel, which relieves the lintel of the weight of the heavy walls above it. Sculpted figures of two lions (now headless) were placed inside the triangular space with their front paws on an altar, guarding the citadel. Interpretations vary as to the meaning of the Lion Gate. Some say that the lions were a secular emblem of Mycenae, the royal coat of arms; others believe that the lions were a religious symbol. The gate was built around 1250 b.c.e. and attributed to the reign of Atreus.

Inside the Lion Gate, Grave Circle A, a royal cemetery, lies to the right. This cemetery was excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876. Schliemann discovered five shaft graves; another was discovered later. The six graves contained nineteen skeletons—eight men, nine women, and two children—presumably all of royal lineage. In addition to the skeletons, bronze swords and daggers, gold and silver cups, five masks of gold, discs of gold leaf, rhytons of gold and silver, and rings and necklaces were found. Among these artifacts was the so-called mask of Agamemnon. In fact, however, these graves were pre-Mycenean—the sixteenth century b.c.e.

On the east side of Grave Circle A is a great ramp leading up to the palace on the summit. The most important room in the palace was the megaron, a long, narrow roofed structure. One entered the domos, or main room of the megaron, through a vestibule or prodomos. The prodomos and the domos contained fragments of frescoes that were later preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The domos contained the throne of the king. It was in this room that banquets were held. Additional features of the palace were the grand stairway, domestic and guest quarters, the artist quarters, and the House of Columns, storage rooms for the possessions of the royal family.

In the lower parts of the citadel, houses for the lesser royalty, state dignitaries, and warriors defending the citadel were discovered. Just outside the citadel lived the citizens of Mycenae, their dwellings surrounded by the graves of their ancestors, structures known as chamber tombs. These consisted of a passage known as the dromos, open to the sky, and a chamber hollowed out inside a hill.

Graves of royalty were more elaborate than the chamber tombs and were known as tholos, or beehive tombs. These were underground and reached by a dromos. Nine tholos tombs have been discovered at Mycenae to date. Among the best preserved of these tombs is the so-called Treasury of Atreus. It is believed that this tomb was built at the same time as the Lion Gate. The proportions of the tomb are monumental: The width of the dromos leading up to the entrance is 19.5 feet (6 meters), and its length is 118 feet (36 meters). Above the lintel in the doorway is the characteristic corbel roof. The ease with which the large stones were fitted into the round structure of the underground tomb make it one of the most impressive architectural achievements of the Mycenaean Age. Grave robbers had emptied all of the known tombs of their contents by the time they were excavated.

Most of modern knowledge of the Mycenaean world comes from artifacts such as frescoes, pottery fragments, metalwork, and jewelry. In 1939, the excavation of another Mycenaean site, Pylos, produced tablets which contained a form of writing known as Linear B. Only seventy of these tablets were discovered at Mycenae; Linear B tablets were also found on Crete associated with the last stages of Minoan civilization. In the early 1950’s, linguist Michael Ventris was able to decipher the script. He discovered that the writing dated from just after 1400 b.c.e. and was an archaic form of Greek. The tablets consisted mostly of inventories of stores, livestock, and agricultural products, and catalogs of the citizenry and their occupations. However limited in scope, the tablets have broadened modern understanding of Mycenaean civilization.

Pottery shards remain the chief index of the civilization’s extent. At its peak, the Mycenaean trading relations extended west to Italy and Great Britain and north to central Europe. In the east, by the end of the fifteenth century, the Mycenaeans dominated Crete. The culture appears to have been much more aggressive than the previous Minoan culture, with the king, or wanax, functioning more as a warlord than a legislator. The epic of the Trojan War is a heroic representation of the type of raiding and conquest characteristic of Mycenaean culture. Their extensive trade relations created an influx of wealth into the cities—hence the great quantity of gold found at Mycenae—but this remained concentrated in the hands of the ruling class, while the lower classes lived in relative poverty. The later Greeks attributed the collapse of Mycenaean civilization to the invasion of the Dorians, but it may also be that the inequity of Mycenaean class relations led to a fatal imbalance in its social structure.

Significance

The stories associated with Mycenaean civilization are the basis of a large portion of classical Greek religion and mythology, which is itself central to the art, literature, and drama of Western civilization. The Mycenaean age also saw the beginnings of Greek writing and monumental architecture. It was an era of extensive trade with other Mediterranean civilizations, and it was also a time of increased warfare, indicated by the extensive fortifications of Mycenaean sites. Although the historicity of Mycenaean figures such as Agamemnon, Atreus, Pelops, and Perseus is unknown, Heinrich Schliemann made archaeological history by excavating following the descriptions given by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey and unearthed the remains of both Troy and Myceneae. Allowing for poetic license and the passage of time, Homer’s descriptions of Mycenaean Age culture and lifestyles appear to have been relatively accurate.

Following the Mycenaean Age, Greece fell into a Dark Age, which is evident in the relative dearth of remains at Mycenae in the Late Helladic IIIC period. When Greece emerged from this Dark Age, it was to bring forth the achievements of the Classical era, but Greeks still looked back to the glories of the Mycenaeans as the foundation of their cultural heritage.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aeschylus. Oresteia. Translated by Christopher Collard. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. The legend of the sons of Atreus as reformulated in three plays by a classical Greek dramatist. This edition contains an extensive introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuer, Bryan, and John M. Weeks, eds. Mycenaean Civilization: A Research Guide. New York: Garland, 1996. An annotated bibliography of over 1100 works dealing with Mycenaean civilization, organized by topic: cultural history and society, material culture, intellectual life, current trends in research, and regional and site reports.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitton, J. Lesley. The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. An excellent, up-to-date, and well-illustrated overview of Mycenaean Greece, not only presenting what can be gleaned from archaeological remains, but also relating the story of its discovery and excavation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Andrew. The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. A biography of the linguist whose decipherment of the Mycenaean script led to an expanded understanding of the Greek Bronze Age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schliemann, Heinrich. Mycenae: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries at Mycenae and Tiryns. Reprint. Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1989. First published in 1880, this work provides a firsthand account of Schliemann’s excavations and his attempt to fit his findings within the Homeric tradition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylour, Lord William. The Mycenaeans. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1990. A detailed, scholarly account of Mycenaean civilization, written by an archaeologist who himself excavated at Mycenae.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. A companion volume to the Public Broadcasting Service series, this book by a popular classicist presents the archaeological background to Homer’s epics, showing the interrelationship of myth and history. Illustrated.
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Aeschylus; Homer. Mycenaean civilization

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