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European Kingdoms

Eastern Mediterranean

 

Iolkos (Mycenaeans)

The Mycenaeans were part of a great expansion and migration of Indo-Europeans, a vast and multilayered grouping which originated on the northern shores of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. The western section of this grouping migrated into Eastern Europe in the period between about 3300-2600 BC.

One of the last stages of this process involved the ancestors of the Mycenaeans. They descended from the steppe into Greece between 1900-1650 BC. Once there, they intermingled with and dominated the locals (who included the Pelasgians) to create a new, unique Greek culture. The first city states emerged by about 1600 BC, but the Mycenaeans did not form a single nation or kingdom. Instead they banded together the forces from each of their independent city states, placing them under one leader in times of trouble.

The Mycenaean city state of Iolkos (or Iolcus) was located near Thessaly in eastern central Greece, on the Aegean coast. Today's ruins of the city are close to Demetrias (Dimini), near the Port of Volos, where a Mycenaean palace has recently been excavated. Iolkos' main claim to fame was as the birthplace of Jason, leader of the Argonauts, who travelled to Kolkis (Colchis) to secure the Golden Fleece.

Dimini itself has provided the most complete picture of a Neolithic settlement yet to be discovered in Greece. The settlement existed on the hill in the fifth millennium BC, surrounded by enclosures (periboloi). Late Neolithic pottery which has been found there has helped the dating of pottery throughout all of Greece (and probably the Late Bronze Age on Cyprus too).

The area around the hill remained settled, growing slowly into the second millennium BC, which witnessed the Mycenaean arrival in Greece. Once dominant (and likely very soon after their arrival) they built a large and very important settlement which was discovered by archaeologists to the south-west of the hill. This was identified as ancient Iolkos, the city of Jason. A well-constructed wide road and several houses were also uncovered, although work is still in progress.

Records on the Mycenaeans are very sparse, usually being limited to myths and legends. Many of their leaders are semi or wholly legendary, at least until the timeline gets closer to the Trojan War and the destruction of the city of Troy. Those who rely entirely on Greek myth are backed in lilac.

Ancient Greek frieze

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from History of Humanity - Scientific and Cultural Development: From the Third Millennium to the Seventh Century BC (Vol II), Ahmad Hasan Dani, Jean-Pierre Mohen, J L Lorenzo, & V M Masson (Unesco 1996), from The Iliad, Homer (Translated by E V Rieu, Penguin Books, 1963), from Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith (Ed), from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from The Ancient History, Vol 2, Charles Rollin (Ninth Edition, M Ogle, 1800), and from External Links: DNA clue to origins of early Greek civilization (BBC News), and The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals (Science).)

c.1470 BC

During this period, Greece is still under the domination of the Minoans, but the volcano at the heart of the island of Thera erupts around this time, catastrophically ending Minoan dominance of the Mycenaeans.

Map of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Greece 1900-1650 BC
The proto-Mycenaeans seem to have been amongst the last of the western Indo-European centum-speakers to take to the road, following a path which had been trodden by related tribes for the past thousand years (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The various Mycenaean city states begin in turn to dominate not only Greece but the islands of the Aegean and Minoan Crete itself. The states of Iolkos and Mycenae both rise to prominence at this time, as do the semi-mythical early Thracians.

c.1325 BC

A Mycenaean tholos tomb (named by its archaeological discoverers as 'Lamiospito') is built in the second half of the fourteenth century BC (the Late Helladic IIIA2 period). It lies three hundred metres to the west of the Neolithic settlement and is preserved in rather good condition.

Even though it is later plundered, it yields rich finds, such as gold jewellery, beads and necklaces of glass-paste, ivory items, and bronze weapons. Another tholos tomb is added nearby, about a century later.

Mycenaean tholos at Dimini (Iolkos)
The entrance to one of the Mycenaean tombs at Dimini (Iolkos) - ordinary citizens received burials while the nobles had tombs such as this

fl c.1230s BC

Critheas / Cretheus

Son of Aeolus of Aeolia. Legendary founder of Iolkos.

fl c.1220s BC

Aeson / Aison

Son. Possibly killed by Pelias while Jason was away.

According to Greek myth, Aeson's mother is Tyro. As well as giving birth to him and his brothers, Pheres and Amythaon, she also has two children by Poseidon, god of the sea. Of the two boys, Neleus and Pelias, the latter seizes the throne of Iolkos and locks Aeson in the dungeon. Aeson's son, Jason, is sent to Chiron to be educated.

fl c.1220s BC

Pelias

Half-brother and usurper. Killed by Medea of Kolkis.

c.1220 BC

Pelias is warned by an oracle to beware a man with one sandal who will overthrow him (shown at the start of the classic film, Jason and the Argonauts, 1963). The man is Jason himself, who returns home while Pelias is holding the Olympic games. Pelias sends him on a quest to find the Golden Fleece. Jason himself is roughly datable as he is of the generation which precedes the participants of the Trojan War and the fall of Troy.

Jason and the Golden Fleece
Jason, rightful heir to the throne of Iolkos, returned home to claim his kingdom to the surprise of the usurper Pelias, who had promised to abdicate only if Jason came back (from Kolkis) with the golden fleece of a winged ram which originally belonged to the god Hermes

He gathers together the Argonauts, the crew of his ship, the Argo, and makes the heroic voyage to Kolkis to secure the Golden Fleece. Joining him is Autolycus, Greek founder of Sinope and a companion of Herakles (later of Maeonia). Along the way he and his crew experience various adventures.

In Thrace, Jason rescues King Phineas from harpies. When the Argo makes landfall near the Hellespont, he defeats Amykos of the Bithyni, to the advantage of Lykos of Mysia. Lykos welcomes Jason and entertains him and his men, but the Argo loses two of its crew during this break and gains two Mysians as replacements. Also lost is Idas, who attempts to steal the Mysian throne.

Jason's helmsman on the Argo, Euphemus, is the ancestor of Aristoteles, later founder of the colony of Cyrene. Butes, king of the Elymians, is the only member of the crew not to be able to resist the song of the sirens, leaping from the ship to swim to them. Aphrodite saves him by transferring him to Lilybaeum on Sicily.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture, which is linked to the early Celts, with Sicily being penetrated only along its eastern coast (click or tap on map to view full sized)

fl c.1220s BC

Acastus

Son. Drove out Jason. Later defeated by him.

After his return to Iolkos, Jason's new wife, Medea, kills Pelias and the couple flee to Corinth. There, Jason leaves her after the king of Corinth, Creon, offers his own daughter, Glauce. Euripides' play Medea describes how she gains her revenge by sending a dress and golden coronet laced with poison to Glauce which not only kills her but her father too.

fl c.1220 BC

Jason

Son of Aeson. Leader of the Argonauts.

Medea is also rumoured to be responsible for the death of her own two children by Jason (accidental or otherwise) and subsequently flees to Thebes and then Athens. In the typical style of Greek myth and legend, Jason loses favour with Hera as a result of breaking his vow to love Medea forever. He dies lonely and unhappy, killed when the stern of the rotting Argo falls on him as he sleeps underneath it.

A descendant of the Argo's helmsman, Euphemus, is King Etearchus of Oaxus. The king's maternal grandson is Aristoteles, founder of the colony of Cyrene.

Cyrene's ruins
Cyrene flourished under its third king, and it maintained a position of regional dominance right through the subsequent Persian, Hellenic, and Roman periods

fl c.1210s BC

Thessalus

Son. Eponymous 'founder' name for Thessaly.

The Greek myths and stories about Iolkos end with Jason and his son. Their descendants and successors are unknown, because the only recorders of the kingdom's history (mythical or otherwise) are overthrown throughout much of Mycenaean Greece by the invading Dorians.

All Mycenaean palaces and fortified sites are destroyed and a major proportion of other sites are abandoned. The population of the Peloponnese appears to decline by about seventy-five percent. Mycenae itself remains occupied, but is burned twice in succession and survives in a much-reduced state and size, never again to hold the reins of power.

Mycenae's citadel in ruins
Mycenae was already in ruins by the start of the first millennium AD, having been abandoned during the fall of Mycenaean Greece

Archaeological evidence shows that Iolkos is also destroyed by fire around this time, suggesting that the city falls to the invading northern tribes. It is later revived as a minor settlement, only to be destroyed in 294 BC by the new Antipatrid king, Demetrius. Greece enters a dark age, with only Athens surviving as a Mycenaean refuge.

 
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