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Mycenaean Greece: History | Culture | Warfare

Mycenaean civilization

The Mycenaean civilization flourished during the period roughly between 1600 BC, when Helladic culture was transformed under influences from Minoan Crete, and 1100 BC, when it perished with the collapse of Bronze-Age civilization in the eastern Mediterranean. The collapse is commonly attributed to the Dorian invasion, although other theories describing natural disasters and climate change have been advanced as well. The major Mycenaean cites were Mycenae and Tiryns in Argolis, Pylos in Messenia, Athens in Attica, Thebes and Orchomenus in Boeotia, and Iolkos in Thessaly. In Crete, the Mycenaeans occupied Knossos. In addition there were some sites of importance for cults, such as Lerna, typically in the form of house sanctuaries, for the Mycenaeans did not build free-standing temples of the familiar kind. Mycenaean settlement sites also appeared in Epirus, Macedon, on islands in the Aegean, on the coast of Asia Minor, and then in Cyprus. Mycenaean artifacts with Linear B inscriptions have been also found as far away as Germany and Mycenaean swords as far away as Georgia.

Mycenaean civilization was dominated by a warrior aristocracy. Around 1400 BC, the Mycenaeans extended their control to Crete, center of the Minoan civilization, and adopted a form of the Minoan script (called Linear A) to write their early form of Greek in Linear B.


Not only did the Mycenaeans defeat the Minoans, but according to later Hellenic legend they twice defeated Troy, a powerful city-state that rivaled Mycenae in power. Because the only evidence for the conquests is Homer's Iliad and other texts steeped in mythology, the existence of Troy and the Trojan War is uncertain. In 1876, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered ruins at Hissarlik in western Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) that he claimed were those of Troy. Some sources claim these ruins do not match well with Homer's account of Troy, but others disagree.

The Mycenaeans buried their nobles in beehive tombs (tholoi), large circular burial chambers with a high vaulted roof and a straight entry passage lined with stone. They often buried daggers or some other form of military equipment with the deceased. The nobility were frequently buried with gold masks, tiaras, armor, and jeweled weapons. Mycenaeans were buried in a sitting position, and some of the nobility underwent mummification, whereas Homer's Achilles and Patroclus were not buried but cremated, in Iron-Age fashion, and honoured with gold urns instead of gold masks.


No Mycenaean priestly class has yet been identified. Worshiper and worshiped are identified in seals, rings and votive figures through their gestures: worshipers fold their arms, or raise the right arm in greeting, or place a hand on the forehead. Deities lift both arms in the "epiphany gesture" or reach forward to give or receive. The pantheon of Mycenaean deities has been reassembled from inscriptions in Linear B found at Pylos and at post-palatial Mycenaean Knossos in Crete. Some of the deities' names are recognizably present in the Olympic pantheon of written myth. Others are not: Ares, for example, is represented only as "Enyalios" which was retained as an epithet. Apollo may be recognized at Knossos as PA-JA-WO ("Paian"). Far more prominent are A-TA-NA PO-TI-NI-JA (Athena Potnia, "Athena the Mistress"), E-RE-U-TI-JA (Eileithyia, later merely invoked during childbirth), Dionysus, and Poseidon, already the "Earth-Shaker", either with his consort Poseida, who was not retained in the transition to Classical Greece, or, at Pylos, with the "Two Goddesses", apparently Demeter and Persephone. The Erinyes or Furies are already present, as are the Winds.

Mycenaean frescoes have been discovered in palace contexts, notably at Pylos, Mycenae, Orchomenos, Thebes, and Tiryns, and in a few non-palatial, perhaps privately-owned contexts. The earliest fresco decorations are of the LH IIA period (ca. 1500 BC). The subjects hold tenaciously to Minoan traditions, whether directly derived or through Cycladic intervention, and have in some cases been reduced to decorative formulas, embodying themes appropriate to their locations: lions and wingless griffins in audience chambers, processional figures in corridors, etc. In a change from the Minoan delight in the life of animals, the Mycenaean relation to nature is reflected in their depictions of animals which are shown only in relation to man or as victims of the hunt. Bull-jumping fresco panels appear at Mycenae and at Tiryns.

Around 1100 BC, the Mycenaean civilization collapsed. Numerous cities were sacked, and the region entered what historians describe as a dark age for its lack of inscriptions, with some Mycenaeans fleeing to Cyprus as well as other Greek islands and parts of Anatolia. During this period Greece experienced decreasing population and the limited literacy, connected with bureaucrats of palace culture, disappeared. Historians have traditionally blamed this decline on an invasion or uprising by another wave of Greek people, the Dorians, who may have been a subjugated local people. Alternate theories for the decline also include natural disasters such as a series of earthquakes or large-scale drought, although these recent theories are more controversial.


The timing and interpretation of the end Mycenaean period poses an array of questions that have yet to be answered.

The end of LH III B1 was marked by some destruction, in particular at Mycenae. By LH III B2, an augmentation of the Mycenaean systems of defense can be seen, a sign of increasing insecurity. But this does not seem to have been a period of crisis, because these levels have yielded archaeological material that bespeaks a degree of wealth in no way inferior to that of previous periods. The end of this period is nevertheless marked by a number of destructions in the greater part of the Mycenaean sites on mainland Greece.


LH III C saw a decrease in the number of sites in Greece, which might have been considerable in certain regions (nine-tenths of the sites in Boeotia disappeared, and two-thirds in Argolis). Yet certain sites such as Mycenae and Tirynth continued to be inhabited, and the material culture found there continues to exhibit Mycenaean traits, such that LH III C is considered to be a level of Mycenaean civilization. However, a new type of ceramic appeared, called "barbarian" because it was formerly attributed to foreign invaders, and there was also a continuing increase in the practice of cremation.

What were the causes of the decline of Mycenaean civilization in this period? Several explanations have been advanced. Those concerning natural factors (climate change, earthquakes) are considered more controversial. The two most common theories are population movement and internal conflict. The first attributes the destruction of Mycenaean sites to invaders. Sometimes the Dorians are invoked, sometimes the Sea People.

The movements of people occurring from the Balkans to the Middle East at this period, mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions calling the invaders by the name of the "Sea People", are quite real. It is known that these people were responsible for numerous destructions in Anatolia and the Levant. Mention of a people called Eqwesh (which recalls the term Achaean) in an Egyptian text of the 12th century BC has caused specialists to suppose that the Mycenaeans had taken part in these invasions (this is not certain). There is little else to tell us what happened in the Greek world.

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Source: Wikipedia

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