Who were the Mycenaeans?
In my last article, on the pre-Greek Minoan civilization, I mentioned the Mycenaean Greeks and their civilization briefly. You can also read a bit about them — and specifically about their alphabet — in a guest post from Experiments in Fiction on the ancient scripts of Crete. If you’re interested in the ancient world, please check both of those posts out! You can also read my brief introduction to ancient Greece itself, in which I outline the four major time periods historians divide “ancient Greece” into.
The Mycenaeans appear in the historical record around 1600 B.C., with the appearance of Linear B and shaft graves distinct from Minoan Linear A and burial practices. The Mycenaean people themselves are closely related to the Minoans; both groups likely split off from the same group of migrants. To learn more about tracing the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and modern Greeks, read this article suggested by @TalesHorizon on Twitter. The Mycenaeans existed on mainland Greece and would have come into contact with the Minoan civilization as the Minoans expanded into parts of the Peloponnese. DNA evidence shows that they also intermingled with peoples from the north, perhaps via a second wave of migration.
We don’t know whether the Minoans subjugated the Mycenaeans, exacted tribute, or just lived alongside them, but we do know that the Mycenaeans learned a lot from the Minoans. They adopted the Minoan script to fit their own language, which I’ll talk about more in a moment. They also drew influence from Minoan art, as you’ll see, and prospered off trade with the Minoans.
The Mycenaean Takeover
Around 1450 B.C., possibly after the destabilization of the Minoan center on Crete due to a tidal wave caused by the eruption of Thera, the Mycenaeans assumed administrative control of the Minoan palaces. We know this because the language in use shifted from Linear A to Linear B. But we don’t know whether the Mycenaeans took over my force, though there are some reasons to believe they may have. From their art, we know that the Mycenaeans were a much more warlike people than the Minoans. And the Minoan palaces suffered damage during this time — though an earthquake could have caused that damage.
Following the takeover, Mycenaean architecture and burial practices became more elaborate. They began building more complex beehive graves and imposing palaces featuring throne rooms.
Sources for the Mycenaeans: Archaeological Evidence, Linear B, and Ancient Greek Literature
How do we know about the Mycenaeans?
First of all, there’s their script, Linear B. A brilliant architect, Michael Ventris, recognized it as early form of Greek and was able to decipher it. Most of the Linear B inscriptions are basic record-keeping. Things like, “John brought three vases of olive oil to the palace today.” So we haven’t been able to learn much about Mycenaean culture, although we have learned that their economy was redistributive — that is, all products, specifically grain, were gathered in the center and then distributed back out to the population. Such an economic scheme would have required a strong, centralized government.
It’s important to note that this scheme took place within fortress-cities, likely not within the whole of Mycenaean Greece. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans walled their cities to protect their populations from invasion — another testament to their warlike nature. We know that the Mycenaeans had kings, called wa-na-ka in Mycenaean Greek and wanax in modern English. And we have some information about the structure of their government and society from Homer’s two great epics.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
Homer himself didn’t live until the 700s B.C., if indeed he was a single person. During that time, he composed the Iliad, which contains distinct echoes of a distant Mycenaean past. For example, Homer’s warriors wear boar’s tusk helmets, which were predominant during Mycenaean times. They eat a meat-based diet, whereas the people of Homer’s time had begun to rely on cereals as their main source of nutrition. And they’re ruled by warrior kings closely resembling the wanax. Moreover, Homer’s King Agamemnon rules the Greek world from a legendary fortress-city called Mycenae.
Several other important lords, including Nestor from Pylos, come from areas of heavy Mycenaean influence where Mycenaean settlements existed. For this reason, scholars believe that Homer set out to gather together legends that occurred — in some fashion or another — during the age of the Mycenaean civilization. Whether or not the Trojan War actually took place is still hotly debated, but there is some archaeological evidence that suggests it may have occurred in the late Bronze Age near the end of the Mycenaeans.
Remember all that beautiful Minoan art with depictions of every day life, animals, and activities like bull-jumping? In stark contrast with this earlier period, Mycenaean art commonly depicts war.
Above, an image of Mycenaean warriors on a vase. The depictions (in silhouette) are clearly influenced by Minoan art, but are generally clumsier.
Minoan influence is especially evident in Mycenaean artists’ representations of Mycenaean women. (See the image below.)
Again, notice the Minoan influence and the clumsier nature of the artwork. It’s likely that the Mycenaeans, a more warlike people than the Minoans, dedicated less energy to art.
One hallmark of Mycenaean art was the use of gold in ornamentation and adornment for burial rites. In the gallery below, I’ve included a Mycenaean octopus vase — go back and compare it to the much more realistic Minoan octopus vase — and two gold pieces from the Mycenaeans. One is an octopus ornament (both the Minoans and the Mycenaeans loved to feature the octopus and other sea life in their art) and the other is a funerary mask that also gives us an idea of what the Mycenaeans may have looked like. That particular funerary mask is called the “Mask of Agamemnon,” although we of course have no idea whether it would have belonged to Agamemnon (or, for that matter, whether Agamemnon was a real person).
How did the Mycenaean civilization fall?
If you’ve been waiting for the mystery, here it is. Around 1200 B.C., the Mycenaean civilization entered a period of decline. Historians aren’t sure what caused the Mycenaean decline, nor what caused the eventual fate of the Mycenaean fortress-cities, most of which were sacked. It’s possible that the Dorian tribe, migrating south, destroyed the Mycenaean centers.
Or a more mysterious group may lie behind the collapse of the Mycenaeans. Called the Sea People, the identity of this group (or groups) remains unknown. But they’re attasted to by Egyptian sources — around the same time the Mycenaeans fell, the Sea People attacked the Egyptian kingdom. The Egyptians were able to rebuff their advance, but many less powerful kingdoms fell prey to their raids — whoever they were. The decline of civilization throughout this time period is known as the Bronze Age Collapse. It may have been in part triggered by climate change.
Following the end of Mycenaean civilization, the Greek world plunged into a historical “dark age” — thus called because of the relative lack of source material, literary, archaeological, and otherwise, that remains from that time. In my next installment in this series on ancient Greek history, we’ll discuss what we know about the Greek Dark Age.
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