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The Mycenaeans and their Greek successors

Updated on March 9, 2013
Map of the Mycenaean world
Map of the Mycenaean world

Origins of the Mycenaeans

Just before the Greeks took to the stage of history, there were the Mycenaeans (pronounced, roughly as "MY-sin-ee-ANS") Around 2000 B.C.E., the Mycenaeans, an Indo-European people, infiltrated the Greek mainland from the north and established several different kingdoms, the most powerful of which was Mycenae -- from which their name derives. By 1600 B.C.E., the Mycenaeans had assimilated the mysterious locals, who were called, "Pelasgi" by later Greeks, while the Mycenaeans themselves were borrowing elements from the Minoan civilization in Crete. For instance, the Mycenaeans adapted Linear B, a syllabic written language from the Minoans' (as yet incomprehensible) Linear A. Though Linear B was applied exclusively to administrative and technical matters, it contained forty characters, and possessed the clarity and control that distinguished later Greek thought. The language, like its descendant, classical Greek, possessed clear rules, yet was flexible enough to express different shades of meaning.

Many of these small figurines have been excavated, most likely they were presented as offerings to their gods.
Many of these small figurines have been excavated, most likely they were presented as offerings to their gods.

Mycenaean Religion

Mycenaean tablets contain the names of many of the later Greek gods. Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans preferred figurines of the gods and small shrines to great statues or temples. But the Mycenaean religion was more patriarchal than that of the Minoans. For example, although both the Mycenaeans and Minoans both were familiar with Zeus, they both had drastically different interpretations of him. The Minoan Zeus, for example, was subordinate to the Mother Goddess, who was either his mother or consort. Furthermore the Minoans Zeus was not immortal, and in their mythos had actually died. Cretans in fact had later scandalized other Greeks by showing them the supposed tomb of Zeus. By contrast, the Mycenaean Zeus whom the Greeks later inherited was the most powerful of all gods -- a sky-god on par with his near-eastern pagan counterparts, whose messenger was the rainbow and weapon was the thunderbolt.

In spite of these differences, and a potentially vastly different mythos around each god, thematically they were rather common religious elements, and many of these common elements were inherited by the later so-called Classical Greek religion or "Hellenismos" of Plato. Ritual items, like altars, appeared to be rather similar as were offerings.

The large cyclopean walls of the city of Mycenae
The large cyclopean walls of the city of Mycenae

Myceanaean Architecture and Cities

Mycenaean palaces are very similar to their Minoan counterparts -- however, this doesn't mean their societies, and what they built, didn't differ in some striking ways. Since Mycenaean cities, like Mycenai, Pylos, or Tiryns, were more susceptible to invasion than the island of Crete, they were fortified with the massive "Cyclopean walls" of Homeric fame. They are so called, because later Greeks were so astonished by the gigantic walls that they believed that the giant Cyclopes of their mythology must have erected them. Springs were connected to these fortified cities by tunnel and along with various storehouses allowed the Mycenaeans to withstand sieges.

Each city had a palace, which was in turn organized around a megaron, a huge hall containing a large central hearth surrounded by four columns. A bathroom near the front door allowed the lord of any of his guests to bathe upon arrival. It's stone floor even slanted downward into a drain which connected to indoor-plumbing. The palace itself was more a complex of individual royal apartments, store-rooms, servants' quarters, stables, and altars.

Depiction of a a myceanaean tomb, based on archaeological excavation.
Depiction of a a myceanaean tomb, based on archaeological excavation.

Myceanaean Government

From these palaces, kings ruled with near absolute authority, at least compared to their later Greek counterparts. Their kingdoms were clearly wealthy, as their palaces, and burial grounds (which were gigantic beehive tombs carved into hills and mountains) have yielded large amounts of gold, silver, and ivory objects. The Myceanaeans acquired this tremendous wealth through trade, via a royal monopoly, and piracy. And as late as the Homeric Age (ca. 730 B.C.E.), no shame was attached to piracy. Homer's Achilles dispassionately notes, "Cattle may be had for the raiding." Myceanaean tombs are decorated with frescos that are depictions of hunting, and waging war. Many also contained clay figurines of animals and women. They traded extensively with lands around the Aegean Sea, including communities in Egypt, Israel, southern Italy and Crete.

The Dark Ages

Mycenaean civilization collapsed beginning around 1180 B.C.E. It's clear that Mycenae and Tiryns were burned in the 1190s, and that other Mycenaean cities were burned around the same time, but it isn't clear what catastrophe befell them. The most persuasive theory is that they were destroyed by raiders who had developed the technology and tactics to make and use javelins and slashing swords. This would have put them at an advantage compared to the Mycenaeans who relied more heavily on charioteers and composite bows. The raiders were likely the more primitive inhabitants of northern Greece. These were Greek speakers of the Aeolic dialect, who had previous served as mercenaries to various Mycenaean cities.

In any case, the destruction of the Mycenaean centers led to the collapse of civilization -- centralized government, wide-spread trade, monumental architecture, and writing, wouldn't grace the southern shores of Greece for centuries afterwards. The population was decimated by war and disease. A Cyprian poet later theorized that the Trojan War had resulted from overpopulation and that Zeus had decided to alleviate the burden that so large a population placed on the Earth. Some small-scale contact remained between the Greek and Phoenician traders during the dark-ages but it was always minimal. Subsistence agriculture was the wide-spread economic activity, and towns relocated to high hill-top villages for easy defense. Many Myceanaeans from the destroyed cities fled to the mountains of Arcadia and to the islands of Cyprus; within several generations, these speakers of the Ionic dialect had also settled various Aegean islands and western Asia Minor, a region of the Greek world that became known as Ionia. These migrations created a vacuum in southern Greece that was filled within a couple generations by the Dorians, a collection of primitive Greek speakers from northern Greece, between late twelfth and late eleventh century B.C.E.

Early Greek alphabet painted on an Attic cup.
Early Greek alphabet painted on an Attic cup.

Greek Successors

Homer's Illiad recounts traditions concerning the events of the late Mycenaean Era but, to some extent, superimposes on them the lifestyle of the Dark Ages. For example, the Dark Ages were aristocratic, and the Kings of this period were but the first among equals; they couldn't order other aristocrats around. The chief characteristic expected of the nobles was arete (virtue), which was defined as strength, skill, and valor, and later Greek philosophers also incorporated a moral code into this sense of arete.

Although the Dark Ages interrupted civilization in Greece for over four centuries by temporarily diminishing contact with the civilizations of the Near East, they also contributed an independence of thought to the emerging Greek culture. The Greeks, while learning from other peoples, were able to craft their own distinctive civilization from preexisting elements.

The collapse of civilization in the area and incoming raiders forced communities to defend themselves against attacks. The later Greek poleis were built around an acropolis (a fortified hilltop) -- and these began to appear during this period. The acropolis became the residence of a king, a place of assembly, and religious center -- all rolled into one for quite a few later Greek cities. Since the chaos rendered trade and communication over the mountainous terrain of Greece difficult, Greek poleis were isolated and self-sufficient. By the time trade flourished again and marketplaces arose beneath each acropolis, the polis had become the fundamental political and social unit of Greece.

Writing returned to Greece near the end of the Dark Ages. While the language was a descendant of the Mycenaean tongue, the new alphabet in which it was expressed was derived from Phoenician script, which consisted of twenty-two consonants. Greek writers added symbols for vowel sounds. The relatively small number of letters made the rapid spread of literacy possible -- it's far easier to teach and learn a small set of phonetic symbols rather than a large set of pictographic symbols. In fact, the entire alphabet was inscribed on some pots during the eighth century B.C.E. Unlike the Mycenaeans the classical Greeks used writing for a great variety of purposes. One early sample of classical Greek is found on an Athenian pot: "Whoever dances the best will get me." Additionally, graffiti has been found all over the ancient Greek world.

The classical Greeks inherited this fusion of Mycenaean and later Greek elements in culture, religion, language, and government -- from the Dark Ages modeled acropolis centered polis,to the pantheon of gods of the Mycenaeans.


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    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 4 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Interesting collection of information on the rise and fall of the Mycenian city-states and the effect they had on the Greeks.

      You stated that it may have been technological advances that left the Mycenian cities a disadvantage compared to their neighbors. It's an important historical concept to understand how quickly a defensive civilization falls once it is outstripped technologically.

    • Weswiki profile image

      Wes 4 years ago from USA

      Exactly. and it seems that in comparison to the fall of Rome it happened rather quickly. (but I take the Prienne-Gibbon view of a long decline on Rome). Primary sources are scant on the internal affairs of the later Mycenaeans, but I'd hypothesize that they had some internal strife occurring at the same time as well. Thanks for commenting, BTW

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