Mycenaens The First Greeks, 1600-1200 BC

In the 3rd millennium BC a prosperous Bronze Age culture developed in the Greek peninsula in small towns in the Peloponnese. Around 2000bc they were destroyed by invaders, probably from the north, and for a time urban life totally disappeared.

mycenaen map

Ancient Mycenae 1600 – 1100 BC

Then in 1600 bc a new civilization emerged from the ashes and built amazing tombs at Mycenae in the north west Peloponnese filled with many gold artifacts. This was probably due to the rise of powerful new kings, not new invasions, but its not known for sure.

In Greek legend, including Homer’s great poems The Iliad and The Odyssey written in the 8th century BC, Mycenae was a paramount kingdom, so the first Greek civilization was called Mycenaean. But in Achaean, the term used by both Homer and contemporary Hittite kings in Anatolia who had diplomatic relations with them, is more apposite. Nothing suggests that Bronze age  Greeks were politically united under Mycenae, although it probably controlled the Argolid  plain beneath its citadel, from which paved roads radiated.


In the 16th century BC the cultural influence of Minoan Crete, then far more sophisticated, was overwhelming on the Mycenaeans. Superb gold cups found near Sparta, showing bulls being tethered by long haired youths, reveal this. But already distinctive themes favored by Mycenaeans, such as hunting and warfare, were emerging. The (1600BC) gold mask from Grave A at Mycenae shows a fierce bearded warriors, most unlike clean shaven Minoans. After 1400BC Greek warriors, possibly from Mycenae, occupied the palace at Cnossus after the Thira eruption.

Among cultural imports from Crete was writing in Linear B, subsequently adopted in Mycenaean centers. These included nearby Tiryns, Thebes and  Orchomenus in central Greece, Athens and Pylos in the south west Peloponnese. Excavations at Pylos have unearthed a complete Mycenaean palace, with elegant tapering columns  and murals depicting hippogriffs  and other mythical figures. Uniquely, Pylos was unwalled Linear B tablets found they reveal a bureaucracy trying to control almost every aspect of daily life. Mycenaean culture spread north to Thessaly, across the Aegean to Miletus on the Asian shore and east to Cyprus. There was probably a palace near Sparta in the fertile Eurotas  valley, but none has been found.


Mycenaean wealth grew throughout the 14th century BC. It probably came from both trading and raiding  piracy, Thucydides noted, was socially perfectly acceptable in legendary times. Greek artifacts mainly pottery, have been found as far as Sicily and as far east as Syria. Mycenaean outposts replaced Minoans after 1400BC, but the Mycenaeans  soon ventured further north than Cretans had ever sailed. To protect Mycenae against threats from abroad or at home, massive new walls were built around its citadel, incorporating the earlier grave circles. The towering Lions Gate, with two lions flanking a pillar, dominated the new approach. Below, houses belonging to nobles, craftsmen and traders made up a little city. Most palaces had a pillared megarron (throne-room), but a few reveal much evidence of planning.

Death Mask of Agamemnon

Death Mask of Agamemnon


Up by the Hellespont (Dardanelles) the Mycenaeans found the ancient trading city of Troy, controlling trade routes from the Black Sea, a good enough cause for war. The Trojan War, the epic ten year war siege variously estimated to have occurred  between 1250 and 1190BC, remains one of archeology’s enigmas. There was a city destroyed around there and then, Troy VIIA, and recent excavations have shown that this was larger than once thought, with impressive palaces. Perhaps a Greek army led by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, did besieged Troy to retrieve Helen, the beautiful wife of the Spartan king, that was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris, as recounted by homer’s Iliad. Or perhaps it did not. But the 13th century certainly ended in general wars. Mycenaean civilization, top-heavy, collapsed soon after.


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