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Ancient Greece: Mycenae

Paul Cartledge is A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Classics at Clare College, Cambridge.  His book, Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities, illuminates the most important and informative themes in Ancient Greek history, from the first documented use of ancient-greecethe Greek language around 1400 BCE, through the glories of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, to the foundation of the Byzantine empire in around CE 330.  In the excerpt below we learn about the city of Mycenae.  Read Carltedge’s other OUPblog posts here.

‘I gazed on the face of Agamemnon’ – so runs the abbreviated headline-grabbing version of a message telegraphed in November 1876 by an overexcited and deeply mistaken Heinrich Schliemann, self-made Prussian multimillionaire businessman turned self-made ‘excavator’, to a Greek newspaper.  For an amateur driven by the ambition to find the real-life counterparts of Homer’s characters the identification was not just seductively tempting but inescapable.  For the Mycenae of Homer’s epic Iliad was adorned with the personalized, formulaic epithet ‘rich in gold’, and Agamemnon was the great high King of Mycenae, by far the most powerful of the regal lords who banded together to rescue the errant wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus from the adulterously fey clutches of Paris (also know as Alexander), a prince of the royal house of Troy. Schliemann had of course already dug there too, indeed could rightly claim to have found at Hissarlik overlooking the Dardanelles on the Asiatic side the only possible site of Homer’s Troy – if indeed there ever was a precise and uniform, real-world original of that fabled ‘windy’ city.  But what he and his team of Greek workmen had in fact discovered at Mycenae, in one of the six hyper-rich shaft-graces enclosed within a much later (c. 1300 BCE) city-wall, was a handsome death-mask of a neatly bearded, compactly expressive adult male datable c. 1650 BCE, well before any sort of Homeric Trojan War could possibly have taken place.

More soberly, accurately, and professionally, if also just a little romantically, Mycenae is the major Late Bronze Age city in the Argolis region of the north-east Peloponnese that has given its name to an entire era: the ‘Mycenaean’ Age.  This is thanks to a combination of archaeology and Homer, mainly the former.  As we have seen, archaeology and philology between them tell us that in about 1450 BCE Cnossos was overwhelmed by Greek-speaking invaders from the north.  These warrior communities had evolved a culture based, like that of Late Bronze Age Crete, on palaces.  But whereas the ‘Minoan’ culture looks to have been strikingly peaceful or at least harmonious, the palace-based ruler of Mycenae and other mainland Mycenaean centres north and south of the Corinthian isthmus (Thebes, Iolcus, Pylus) were notably bellicose and like to surround themselves with huge walls (those of Mycenae were over 6 meters thick).  Whether or not the rulers themselves were literate, they had their archives kept for them in the primitive bureaucratic form of Greek script know prosaically as Linear B (deciphered as Greek as recently as 1952…).  The well-known publishing house of Thames & Hudson once included ‘The Mycenaeans’ in their ‘Ancient Peoples and Places’ series (an accessible study by Lord William Taylour).  But the Mycenaeans were not a ‘people’ in any authentic, organic, anciently attested sense.

Moreover, though Greek in language, the civilization of Mycenaean Greece was in most other, basic respects a provincial outpost of a Middle Eastern culture whose epicentres lay in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.  The imposing Lion Gate entrance to the citadel recalls Hattusas of the Hittites or even Babylon; and the beehive, corbelled, drystone tombs known as the Treasury of Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) and the Tomb of Aegisthus (lover of Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra) betray an almost Egyptian lust for imposing posthumous longevity.  Palace-frescoes suggest that the buildings rang to the chants of court-musicians, and so, conceivably, there may have been Mycenaean court-poets or at any rate court-lyricists.  But the Linear B texts deciphered thus far at least (from Thebes, Tiryns, Ayios Vasilios, and Pylus as well as Mycenae on the mainland, and from Cnossos and Khania, ancient Cydonia, on Crete) contain not a shred of poetry nor any other kind of literature, and, given their documentary, bureaucratic function as temporary records of economic data mainly for tax-purposes, are hardly likely to yield such in the future.  (It is, not incidentally, by accident not design that the Linear B tablets were preserved: the fires that consumed the palaces at Mycenae and elsewhere in c. 1200 BCE baked them to an imperishable hardness).

In short, Mycenaean culture and society represented, in Hellenic retrospect, a false start.  Ironically, in a way, the best possible witness to the gulf between the world of the palace and that of the polis are the very epic poems – the Iliad, the Odyssey, and some others collectively known as the ‘epic cycle’ – that have been cited to prove the relationship of direct, unbroken, civilizational descent.  Ostensibly, indeed, the epics do purport to descrive a long-lost, far superior civilization of the sort that the visible remains of Mycenae and other Late Bronze Age capitals evoked.  Yet what Greek audiences of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE – the era, that is, when the epics achieved their finished, monumental form – imagined to be colossally huge palace establishments paled by comparison with the real thing, as that was revealed by means inaccessible to the Greeks, namely archaeology, arthistory, and linguistics.  For example, homer’s audiences were assumed to think of fifty slaves as a suitably vast holding for a heroic king of yore, when actually a Mycenaean palace of the thirteenth century BCE had been able to command the forced labour of hundreds if not thousands of do-er-oi (the Mycenaean version of classical Greek douloi, meaning ‘slaves’).  And…, later Greeks could not believe that Mycenae’s massive walls had been constructed by mere, ordinary mortals.

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