Who were the Mycenaeans who destroyed the Minoan civilisation?
Well, let us start with Troy. The story of the discovery of Mycenae is bound up with the romantic story of the great German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was a parson’s son who became a grocer and then turned into an international trader and became very rich. As a small boy he had read Homer and he dreamed of going out to the east and digging up Troy. Everyone said that Troy did not exist but being a literal-minded grocer, he went out and dug into a mound where Troy should have been and Lo and behold! in 1871 he discovered Troy.
True, his methods were at first somewhat crude, and he was something of a fantasist who dressed up his findings and his wife in a glow of romanticism which at times merged into romantic fiction. Troy, lying at the entrance to the Dardanelles, the entrance to the Black Sea had a long, long history – the Troy of Homer is in fact Troy VI or VII. Schliemann put a trench through the mound, discovered a marvellous treasure with which he adorned his wife and said that it came from Helen. In fact it came from Troy II around 2500 BC. Nevertheless he established that Troy was Troy, so he then went on to dig Mycenae.
According to Greek legend, and above all the account of the ten years siege of Troy recounted in Homer’s Iliad, the Greeks who besieged Troy were led by Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae: but where was Mycenae? In classical Greece, Mycenae was, as it is today, only a small village, but there is evidence in the form of the Lion Gate, that it had once been a magnificent town. Schliemann having revealed Troy, went on to reveal Mycenae. By this time he was a somewhat better archaeologist – he had acquired an architect, Wilhelm Dörpfelt who drew up plans of what he found.
Just inside the Lion Gate, he discovered two grave circles, circular walls enclosing graves. In one of them he found treasures with which to adorn his wife once again, and also a gold mask which he knew instantly to be the mask of Agamemnon himself, and he telegraphed excitedly ‘ I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon’ – he was about 200 years too early.
Compared to the subtleties of the Minoan civilisation, the Mycenaeans were indeed crude barbarians. Mycenae itself is set on a low but craggy hill, good for defensive purposes but distinctly inhospitable ground for a palace. Its rise to fame began around 1600 BC. Prior to that there had only been a small and undistinguished settlement there, but then the two grave circles were erected with lavish and rich burials, proving evidence for the rise of a powerful dynasty of warrior kings. 200 years later the site was expanded: walls were built around the hilltop bringing the grave circles inside the town – they had previously been outside it.
Around this time too, burials moved outside the town onto the hillside opposite where a series of magnificent tholoi tombs were constructed – huge circular tombs 30 or 40 yards in diameter with beehive shaped roofs and long sloping entrance ways.
The most magnificent one, known as the Tomb (or Treasury) of Atreus is one of the world’s great archaeological masterpieces.
Subsequently a palace was constructed on the hilltop and numerous ancillary buildings spread out on terraces within the walled area with a more extensive town in the more suitable land outside the walls. The palace itself is one of the best examples of a megaron building. A ‘Megaron’ — the word in Greek means a big room, is a single large room with four pillars supporting the roof and a porch at the front with two pillars: the megaron is often considered to be the type architecture of the Mycenaean world.
The megaron features prominently in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus when arriving home after a twenty year absence, ten years having been spent in the siege at Troy and a further ten years wandering round the east Mediterranean and getting lost, shipwrecked and seduced. But he eventually arrives home in Ithaca, he finds his ever loving wife Penelope has spent the last twenty years fighting off suitors who are still pursuing her. Odysseus gets into the Megaron disguised as a swineherd and eventually challenges the suitors and picking up a convenient bow and arrow, shoots the lot. The baddies are all killed, the hero is triumphant and he is eventually reunited with his ever loving wife.
According to Homer, the Greeks eventually defeat the Trojans and captured Troy. According to Virgil, Aeneas escapes from Troy and also spends ten years wandering round the Mediterranean, is seduced by Dido at Carthage and eventually piously founds Rome. According to the archaeologists there is no sign of the destruction of Troy by the Greeks. However around 1200 both Troy and Mycenae and their respective civilisations collapse at the same time as the Egyptian civilisation collapsed under the attacks of the Sea Peoples and the Hittite empire also comes to an end, and the whole of the east Mediterranean goes into a Dark Age.
It is hard to avoid a picture emerging of the distinction between the Minoans and the Mycenaeans. The Minoans are charming, civilised, peace loving and perhaps slightly effeminate. The Mycenaeans are crude, warlike, masculine and barbarians. Whether there is any truth in any of this or whether it is simply a myth engendered by the genius of Arthur Evans, I would not like to say. But it seems clear that around 1450 – 1400, the Mycenaeans did take over in Crete. They introduced their own language, the language of Minoan Linear B, that is Greek. Linear B tablets are not found in the three palaces to the east at Phaistos, Malia and Zakro, though Linear A tablets are found in all three. Linear B tablets occur in great quantity at Knossos, and a few are known from Chania, the second town of Crete, lying to the west, where it is often suspected that a Minoan palace may lurk under the modern town waiting to be discovered, if only someone could pull down the modern town. But there are also a lot of Linear B tablets in the other palaces on the mainland: at Pylos, the palace of King Nestor in the south west corner of the Peloponnese; at Tiryns the lessor palace twenty miles from Mycenae in the north west of the Peloponnese; at Thebes under the modern town; and at a number of other sites in Greece. (Click here to see the account of the Mycenaean palace at Sparta). It seems clear that the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans and it is likely that the conquest was not a peaceable one. But the Mycenaeans adopted the habits of literacy from the Minoans and adapted their script to form Minoan Linear B, which we now know to have been Greek.
Thus the Mycenaeans form the background to the myths and legends enshrined in Homer, and in the thoughts and minds of the classical Greeks, and in this way the Minoans form a very distant ancestry to the story of the grandeur that was Greece.