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European Kingdoms

Eastern Mediterranean

 

Mycenae (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 site of the city state of Mycenae was occupied from about 3500 BC by indigenous peoples - Neolithic farmer cultures of 'Old Europe' - but archaeological evidence was mostly destroyed by later construction. Mycenaeans had settled the site by around 1600 BC, only a century or two after their distant cousins, the Hittites, had conquered central Anatolia to their east.

They existed by farming the area - probably employing the now-subjugated Neolithic natives to do this - and by keeping cattle, a very well-established habit for most formerly-steppe-living Indo-Europeans. The early stages of settlement also show that there was interaction with the Minoan civilisation on Crete, which is believed to have dominated the early Mycenaeans, at least in the Peloponnese, until the fifteenth century BC.

The citadel of this Mycenaean city state was not far from the sister city state of Argos, in the Peloponnese. It was situated on the lower slopes of the Euboea Mountain, on the road leading from the Argolic Gulf to the north (leading towards Ephyra and Athens). The citadel was rebuilt about 1350 BC, using limestone blocks so massive that later ages thought it to be the work of the cyclopes (giants). These outer walls contained later rebuilds of the royal palace.

The name of this city state - Mycenae - was adopted by archaeologists to describe the whole of this Late Bronze Age Greek civilisation. Greek mythology paints the city's legendary founder, Perseus, as a son of Zeus, a common tactic for half-remembered heroic ancestor figures whose family details had not been preserved. The historical version of this Perseus does seem to have been an important early king of Mycenae, so it would certainly make him a figure worth remembering in oral history.

The city state was at the height of its power by 1350-1300 BC, close to the time at which Perseus could have ruled given the generations between him and Agamemnon. That fails entirely to agree with the date of the city's founding as a Mycenaean colony (with the names of Perseus' own ancestors not having been preserved), but it does put him in prime place to have been behind the major rebuild of about 1350 BC.

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.1500 BC

The 'Griffin Warrior' dies in this period and is buried alone near the site of the later 'Palace of Nestor' at Pylos. His burial is accompanied by one of the most magnificent displays of wealth ever to be discovered in Greece by twenty-first century AD archaeologists.

The character of those objects which follow him into the afterlife - no ceramics but plenty of bronze, silver, and gold - prove that this part of Mycenaean Greece, like the city state of Mycenae itself, is being indelibly shaped by close contact with the Minoans.

This warrior, clearly a ruler in the Pylos region, has lived on the acropolis of Englianos at a time at which mansions are first being built with walls of cut-stone blocks, in the so-called Minoan ashlar style.

The Griffin Warrior burial site
Shown here are some of the finds discovered in the lowest levels of the Griffin Warrior's tomb, amongst which are a blade, 'horns', and part of the hilt of a Minoan-type sword, lying on top of a bronze short sword with a similar gold handle

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.

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.

fl c.1350? BC

Perseus

Son of Danaë, dau of King Acrisius of Argos. City 'founder'.

Perseus is considered by later Greeks to be an historical figure. He marries Andromeda, daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia of Ethiopia (Ethiopia being a much later addition to the legends).

This is his reward for having freed her from the rock to which she is chained in order to appease a sea serpent named Cetus which is terrorising the people at the bidding of Poseidon.

Then he fortifies Mycenae (according to Apollodorus, which would seem to link Perseus to the massive rebuilding work of about 1350 BC - and the timescale based on the number of rulers between him and Agamemnon does support this).

Mycenae reconstruction
This artist's reconstruction of the citadel at Mycenae shows it at the height of its power, when Mycenaean Greeks ruled or terrorised much of the eastern Mediterranean Sea

Electryon

Son. Also king of Tiryns. Killed by Amphitron.

Amphitron / Amphitryon

Son-in-law. Ousted.

Amphitron accidentally kills his father-in-law, Electryon, and appears briefly to hold power in Mycenae before he is driven out by one of Electryon's brothers, Sthenelos. He flees to Thebes, where he is cleansed of his guilt for the accident.

fl c.1300? BC

Sthenelos

Brother of Electryon. Also king of Tiryns.

Eurystheas / Eurystheus

Son. Also king of Tiryns.

Atreus and Aegisthus are the sons of Pelops, king of Pisa, and grandsons of Tantalus of Sipylus (Maeonia in Anatolia, which would support the idea of Mycenaean colonists already being there). Eurystheas leaves them both in charge of Mycenae while he proceeds to attack Athens.

He is defeated resoundingly and killed, along with his own sons. With no direct descendant to occupy the throne, Atreus and Thyestes fight each other for the kingdom. Atreus wins and becomes king.

Aegeus and the Oracle
Aegeus, grandson of the semi-mythical King Erichthonius of Athens, consults the Oracle at Delphi for advice regarding his lack of a male heir despite two marriages

Archaeologically, the citadel they occupy is known as Phase IIa, in the Late Helladic II phase of the Late Bronze Age. It is with Atreus that the rulers of Myceneae begin to emerge from legend into some semblance of history as preserved by The Iliad.

1200s BC

Although Mycenaean city states reach the height of their power by the end of the fourteenth century BC, Greek legends and myths provide only enough names to list possible kings as far back as about the early thirteenth century BC.

These are the immediate ancestors of those kings who become involved in the Trojan War, the one key event in Mycenaean history which solidifies their existence to later generations despite the war being remembered only in oral tradition until Homer writes it down some four hundred or more years later.

Those city states which can confidently be claimed as existing with their own kingship (historical or legendary) include Achaean Crete, Athens, Ephyra, Iolkos, Laconia, Mycenae, and Phthia.

Mycenaean cups
Mycenaean one-handled cups such as these examples appeared on Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age, when Achaean culture dominated parts of the eastern Mediterranean

Atreus

Son. Founder of the House of Atreus. Murdered by Aegisthus.

Aegisthus

Nephew. Usurper. Driven out but returned c.1183 BC.

Thyestes / Thyestis

Father, and brother of Pelops. Joint ruler.

The brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus (or grandsons via Pleisthenes, according to alternative traditions), shelter with Tyndareus of Laconia following the usurpation of the Mycenaean throne.

Together the brothers return to drive out Aegisthus and Thyestes, and Agamemnon increases the kingdom's territory by conquest to become the most powerful Mycenaean ruler.

c.1200 - 1177 BC

Agamemnon

Killed Tantalus of Maeonia and married his widow.

c.1200 BC

Menelaus

Inherited the throne of Sparta. Took part in the Trojan War.

c.1193 - 1183 BC

Agamemnon of Mycenae calls to arms the forces of his allied Achaean kingdoms, including Athens, Crete, Ephyra, Laconia, Phthia, Pylos, Tiryns, and Thebes. Before he can leave for the Trojan War, the seer Calchas (later to be found in Pamphylia) prophesises that in order to gain a favourable wind, the king must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia, to the gods.

Artist's impression of Troy
This illustration is another artist's impression of an unspecified version of Troy, although it is believed to be based on the city which existed around the time of the Trojan War, shortly before its defeat and destruction

After that unsavoury act, the combined and somewhat fractious force sails off to various adventures on its way to Troy (probably signifying a series of campaigns or raids over several years), leaving Agamemnon's strong-willed wife, Clytemnestra, in charge.

Clytemnestra begins an affair with Aegisthus, the only surviving son of Thyestes and the former usurper king of Mycenae itself. When Agamemnon returns (with his captive consort, Cassandra) the pair are murdered in the bath by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, partially in revenge for the death of Iphigeneia.

c.1193 - ? BC

Clytemnestra

Wife. Daughter of Tyndareus of Laconia.

c.1183 - ? BC

Aegisthus

Cousin of Agamemnon and third husband of Clytemnestra.

Orestes

Killed his mother and fled the kingdom for a time.

Tisamenus / Tissamenus / Tisamenos

Son. Driven out by the Heraclidae.

1200 - 1140 BC

Mycenaean power is gradually eroded by the Dorians who are migrating in from the Balkans, with domination coming by 1140 BC. The surviving Ionic-speaking Mycenaeans gather and flourish in Athens or perhaps in conquered Levantine territories which probably include Phillistia, or in new colonies which have been founded well away from the Dorians.

Map of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Greece 1200 BC
Climate-induced drought in the thirteenth century BC created great instability in the entire eastern Mediterranean region, resulting in mass migration in the Balkans, as well as the fall of city states and kingdoms further east (click or tap on map to view full sized)

These include Epirus in north-western Greece and Pamphylia in Anatolia, but it also seems likely that Mycenaeans form groups within the Sea Peoples who ravage the eastern Mediterranean in this period.

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.

Once the Hittites had been destroyed around 1200 BC, and the Mycenaeans had themselves (probably) smashed Troy, the colonisation of the western coast of Anatolia could begin (the possibility that the earlier Ahhiyawa may also be a Mycenaean colony notwithstanding).

This would seem to be the most likely - and popular - avenue of Mycenaean escape from the mainland. Once there they form or take over states or regions such as Caria, Lycia, and Maeonia, and perhaps Pamphylia, between about 1100 to 900 BC. Those states themselves usually survive until they are conquered by the later great empires.

Hittite pottery of an Ahhiyawan?
Shown here is a representation on Hittite pottery of an Anatolian warrior of about 1350 BC, possibly representing an Ahhiyawan

However, in common with much of the Near East, this general instability which has been driven by a major regional drought causes a dark age to fall throughout the remainder of Greece, until about 750 BC, when early Classical Greece begins to emerge.

Overseas trade ceases in the Mediterranean, people are no longer buried with lavish grave goods, and the fortress of Minyan Orchomenus is one of those to be broken by the Dorians, while others are substantially reduced in size or are abandoned altogether. The only state to buck the trend is that of Alashiya, which prospers.

In Greece, classical states such as Athens, Corinth, Epirus, Macedonia, Phthia, Sparta, and Thrace slowly emerge (or re-emerge) during the ninth to seventh centuries BC. Many of them do so with a Dorian ruling elite in place over the remaining Mycenaean nobility and the Neolithic general populace.

Tushratta tablet to Amenhotep III
The clay which was used to make tablets for those of the Amarna letters which were sent from Alashiya contained clay which can be matched closely to deposits on Cyprus

Ogyges

Last of the Atreidae. Possibly did not rule.

c.1150 BC

Mycenae is attacked yet again (for at least the third time) and is razed. Archaeology shows that subsequent habitation of the site is on a reduced basis. Coincidentally perhaps, this attack can be aligned with the ousting of the Atreidae from Mycenae by their implacable enemies, the Heraclidae of Maeonia in Anatolia.

fl c.950s BC

Aristodemus

King of Sparta. Captured Mycenae.

c.940s BC

Aristodemus is instrumental in launching the final attack on Mycenae. He would also seem to rule it for a time, although legend has him being killed before his forces arrive there. Additionally, the two ruling houses of Laconia are created by Aristodemus.

A candidate from each house will share the throne. The idea is that if one of the warlike kings die in battle, the state will not be left leaderless, instead being able to respond immediately to the threat. Classical Sparta is born.

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

fl c.950s BC

Theras

Regent for Aristodemus in Mycenae and his brother-in-law.

Mycenae now passes out of the historical/legendary record, such is its diminished importance. How long it remains a satellite stronghold of Sparta is unknown. In fact, it barely re-emerges into history at all, and then only as the provider of a unit of troops for Leonidas of Sparta in 480 BC.

480 BC

FeatureLeonidas of Sparta achieves everlasting fame as a result of the events in the Battle of Thermopylae against the Persians in 480 BC (see feature link).

The 300 Spartans of Leonidas' personal guard leads a force totalling no more than 7,000 Greeks which includes Athenians, Corinthians, Helots, Mycenaeans (thereby proving the city's continued existence as a stronghold of now-lesser importance), Thebans, and Thespians. (These events are depicted somewhat colourfully - but no less impressively for that - in the 2007 film, 300.)

Battle of Thermopylae
The Spartan stand at Thermopylae in 480 BC, along with some Greek allies, stopped the Persian advance in its tracks and provided a rallying call for the rest of the free Greek cities to oppose the Persians

468 BC

Troops from nearby Argos capture the citadel of Mycenae. Its inhabitants are expelled and the remaining fortifications are rendered useless. The citadel is later reoccupied, but only briefly. A theatre is built during the Hellenistic (Greek empire) period, but by the time Rome conquers Greece in 146 BC, Mycenae has been abandoned for the final time and is already in ruins.

 
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