c. 1600-1100 BC
Last time I did a history post it was about the legendary Epic Cycle time period of Troy, this time I’m going to the other side, to Mycenaean Greece, only I’m going to be a little bit more historical about what sort of state was in place in Greece at this time. Or, well, states, because as any student of Ancient Greece will know, there was never really a united Greece, rather all of the city-states had a common Greek identity but fought and rivalled each other for power in the peninsula while making philosophy and civilisation and writing. And later on, in the Classical period, I will go into detail on the individual city states, the important ones like Athens and Sparta, but for now, I think the best course of action is to treat the Mycenaean period as an introduction into Ancient Greece as a whole. I want to get a lot of posts out of this but I’m not crazy.
This is not a nation, but then few I’ve done so far were really nations, with the possible exception of Ancient Egypt. It was a group of people who may have answered the same when asked what they considered themselves to be, or more likely would have ignored the pollster asking the question because they had no reason to give a shit. It may have been ruled by one person but completely lacked centralisation.
In the Greek peninsula, the southern part, southwards from Thessalia, onto the Peloponnesos and across the Aegean islands. Major cities at this time were Pylos, Thebes near Athens, Athens, Iolkos in the north, Tiryns, Knossos in Crete, taking over from the Minoans and most importantly, Mycenae, from which this era of Greek history gets its name.
In the depths of history, before there was any form of coherent civilisation on mainland Greece, there was the Minoan civilisation on Crete, which I have done in the past as well as a post on the Cycladic civilisation arising on the islands in the Aegean. Mycenaean Greece is essentially the descendant of these civilisations, taking hints of building work and culture from these earlier civilisations but their identity of Greeks had spread on to the mainland and so all these cities were growing and there was going to be some form of a civilisation here now. Civilisation had been contained in the Middle East for too long, from 1500 BC onwards, it started to spread out. Or at least, the finds that we have did.
For half a millennium the writing script used by Greeks was in continuous use, which is where we define the dominance of the Mycenaean Greeks.
The rise of Mycenaean civilisation is normally attributed to an eruption on the island of Thera, which devastated the once powerful Minoan civilisation on Crete and allowed way to be made for Mycenae to rise in its place, colonising Crete at Knossos, while also reaching out to Rhodes. In the story of the Trojan War, that happens after Greece is united under the Mycenaeans for the first time. Agamemnon is a king of Mycenae, and the film of Troy (although this is conflated with an earlier king) shows him bringing Iolkos (Thessaly) under his sway at the beginning. The Greeks saw Mycenae as the first city that brought all Greeks together as vassals under at least the pretense of one banner, no matter how much they would infight. Mycenae would lead, the Ithacans would explore the sea, the Thessalians provide cavalry. At least, this is the traditions that later Greeks attributed to being ‘history’. Whatever the political case, the Greeks at this time began expanding their trade routes to beyond the Aegean and further into the Middle East and started building much bigger palaces than anything seen in Greece before.
The ruler records are limited so I’m going to use the time I have here to talk about early Greek culture rather than go through the Greek city rulers. It was dominated by a huge warrior society that kept to the palace as a political structure. They were governed directly from the palace of each individual city and there was no overarching structure connecting them all together, except of course, that they’d all call themselves Greeks. Of these palatial states, Mycenae was definitively the largest and that’s why this era is named after that city. But there wasn’t a central state spiralling out from Mycenae (even though Egyptian records reference a ‘Great King’ indicating such and though I’d like to believe it, there just isn’t enough evidence for me to quite say that all the Greeks bowed their knees to Mycenae), even if they may have had heavy influence on nearby cities like Tiryns. The cities did have their own individual kings, called a wanax.
There’s little indication of religion in the Mycenean sites but it’s unlikely the concept of Zeus and company living up on Mount Olympus had come into being fully although their names were being bandied around at this time. The reason I say that we’re unsure there is because it’s so far removed from the deities we know from Classical Greece that it’s reasonable to assume that changes to their personification occurred over the centuries. The same thing happened in Egypt, Osiris only became a god of the dead after some millennia and we don’t have as consistent records for this. If any emphasis was given it was to Poseidon who has pride of place in most Mycenaean records while Zeus was… not. Given that Poseidon is the god of earthquakes and given how the Mycenaeans likely reached their level of dominance, I see an explanation.
On armies, it was early times and we’re not yet at the ages of the hoplites but the traditional Greek fighting style was starting to take shape, spears and large shields were already the order of the day and the most common weapon while records of chariots are spurious and it’s likely that foot soldiers were the vast majority of city troops
There are virtually no personalities that I can find any information about from this period, which is unfortunate but one reason for this is that from 1200 BC on to 1100 BC, Mycenaean culture was in decline and for three centuries after its collapse, Greece entered a period of ‘Dark Ages’ which probably occurred from a combination of invasions and depopulation. Those invasions are rather mysterious and I will cover them at some point. It will be a while before I come back to Greece, and when I do there’ll be tons of philosophy and culture to talk about, for emerging from the Dark Age was a Greece full of traditions, myths and legends.
What really happened in Mycenaean Greece, whether it was the location of Agamemnon and the like, powerful Mycenaean rulers who led a kingdom of Greeks, we cannot say. We only know of their palaces…