The fortified late Bronze Age settlement of Mycenae in the Argolid plain, which gives its name to the Mycenaean civilization, is an enigma of history. Possibly dated from circa 1600 BC, the stronghold was inhabited for around five centuries, and possibly reached its peak at circa 1350 BC, when the population reached over 30,000 people. This apical stage of the Mycenaean state is represented by the numerous fascinating finds at the Mycenae site, including one of the first specimens of decipherable Greek language – known as the Linear B script, and the renowned Mask of Agamemnon – a tangible item that fueled the reveries related to Homer’s epic works. Such cultural attributes are complemented by the magnificent architectural accomplishments of these Bronze Age inhabitants, ranging from the palatial megaron to the iconic Lion’s Gate.
Most these incredible elements are presented in the drone captured video below, courtesy of Up YouTube channel Drones.
Now beyond the scope of just Mycenae, the Mycenaeans had various strongholds spread across Greece and even Crete. To that end, we have decided to include some excerpts from one of our previous articles – 10 Incredible Things You Should Know About The Mycenaean Civilization And Its Armies, to shed light on these enigmatic ‘precursors’ to Classical Greeks.
1) The Mysterious Mycenaeans –
Mycenaean as a term was probably as much ‘mysterious’ to ancient authors as the civilization is puzzling to modern scholars. In fact, Classical authors were not even aware of any singular Mycenaean faction – and given their Greek traditions, such writers often attributed the specific geographically-limited tribes as their ancestors, like the Achaeans and the Argives. Now of course, the greatest example of Classical Greeks being inspired by their ‘ancestors’ comes from the epic poetry of Homer in Iliad and Odyssey. And while the popular historical sentiment hints at how Homer was actually talking about the Mycenaeans, much of the Trojan War is set in a date that only tentatively corresponds to Mycenaeans. To that end, rather than a historical exposition of how Mycenaeans fought and behaved, the Iliad should be viewed more as a compilation of folkloric traditions that were passed down through generations from around 9th-8th century BC (three centuries after the passing of the Mycenaeans).
Now, of course, given such ‘folkloric’ credentials, it doesn’t mean that Homeric works are completely devoid of actual historical scenarios. But alongside the oral traditions, many of the storytellers also invented their own mythical stuff that was ultimately added on to the epic works. And in an odd twist of fate, it was the romanticism of Homer’s literary achievements that ultimately drew archaeologists to the previously ‘unknown’ Mycenaeans. That is because, in the late 19th century, it was Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman, who wanted to prove to the world the actual existence of the Trojan War heroes. He came upon an ancient Bronze Age tomb near the Mycenae site filled with a myriad of grave goods, including gold, silver, ivory and ceramic artifacts (including the famed golden ‘Mask of Agamemnon‘). Though initially thought to be the royal tomb of Agamemnon, it was later assessed to be the burial complex of a dynasty that existed about 250 years before the supposed Trojan War (of 13th century BC). Thus a forgotten Greek civilization came to ‘life’ in the archaeological realm, and they were known as the Mycenaeans (derived from the very same Mycenae site, in Argolid).
2) Inspired by Islanders?
Oddly enough, while the Mycenaeans themselves can be considered as ‘Greeks’, as judged by their decipherable Linear B script, the early phase of the civilization in itself (mostly based in mainland Greece) was markedly inspired by the distant Minoans hailing from the island of Crete. To that end, the earlier Mycenaean artworks, architectural patterns, and military arms, circa 1600–1450 BC, are very much similar to the contemporary Minoan styles – so much so that many early historians presumed the southern part of ancient Greece to be a colony of Bronze Age Crete.
But that was not the case. Rather the tangible influence of the Minoans on the ‘mainland’ Mycenaeans probably came from sea-based trading and exchange of materials between the two different cultures. In that regard, it should be noted that the early Minoans used the Linear A syllabic script – which is still undecipherable and conveys a language entirely different from the Greek dialects (unlike the Linear B).
3) Reversal of Fortunes –
Once again reverting to the twist of fate in history, by 1400 BC, the native Minoan civilization came to a halt – possibly due to cataclysmic effects of the volcanic eruption of Thera. The Mycenaeans took advantage of this chaotic period and pushed forth their ‘mainland’ culture in Crete. This reversal of influence led to the emergence of the famous Mycenaean site at Knossos, Crete. The Mycenaean ascendance was also reflected by their rising power in the proximate Aegean regions. Thus trade treaties were carved up with other regional powers, including the Hittites of Anatolia and Ancient Egypt.
The cultural and military exchanges between these Bronze Age power-centers were evident from the employment of ‘exotic’ Egyptian and Nubian mercenaries in Mycenaean armies (and vice versa). Furthermore, pertaining to an intriguing scope, at some point circa 14th century BC, the Mycenaeans may have even sent an expeditionary force to fight the Hittites allies of western Anatolia, which intriguingly (though possibly coincidentally) mirrored the events of the Trojan War.
4) The Abrupt Disappearance –
Archaeological and literary pieces of evidence suggest how the Mycenaeans tried to ‘remodel’ their army by 13th century BC, with their tactics evolving to cope with flexibility and decentralized command. from the historical angle, such far-ranging alterations in the military were possibly made to deal with a newer type of threat that went beyond mass battlefield formations. Much like the Anglo-Saxon response to Viking raids, the Mycenaeans of these times preferred small batches of soldiers who were easily available to defend the coastal areas – as is evident from the Linear B tablets of the 13th century BC Pylos, another significant Mycenaean stronghold (like Mycenae). Concurrently, the late 13th century BC (and early 12th century BC) also saw the rise of fortified architecture in major Mycenaean settlements, with massive stone ramparts being constructed to protect their citadels and palaces.
In any case, after just a few years, the palace at Pylos was destroyed, circa 1180 BC. Soon after, most of the other Mycenaean sites and settlements were also destroyed – and this sudden eclipse of a thriving Bronze Age culture is still one of the puzzling mysteries of time yet to be solved by historians. Suffice it to say, there are debates in the academic world that relate to the hypothetical reasons behind this sudden ‘mass’ demise of a civilization (so much so that Greece was thrown into a dark age for almost three centuries, till 9th century BC). Some of these conjectures bring up the familiar narrative of the invading Dorians and the mysterious forays of the ‘Sea People‘, while others hint at climatic changes and social revolutions.
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