Mycenae was a city on a hill in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, the peninsula that forms the southern part of mainland Greece. Mycenae was the main center of civilization in Greece during the late Bronze Age, which lasted from the 1600s to the 1100s B.C. Historians refer to that era of Greek history as the Mycenaean period. Legends about Mycenaean heroes* and kings survived to become the basis of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the epic* poems about the Trojan War, which was believed to have taken place at the end of the Mycenaean period.
The Mycenaean period began when wealthy kingdoms appeared in southern Greece around 1600 B.C. Most modern historians believe that the groups that came to power were local people, but other scholars claim that invaders took control of the region. These new rulers established dozens of rival kingdoms, each with a central fortress and palace. The largest of these capitals was Mycenae.
In the 1400s B.C., the Mycenaeans probably conquered the rich Minoan civilization that existed on the island of Crete. For the next few hundred years, Mycenae was a major power in the eastern Mediterranean, controlling cities on the Greek mainland and on islands in the Aegean Sea. The Mycenaeans also developed a trade network that linked all the lands around the Mediterranean. The Mycenaeans shipped their pottery and olive oil to other lands in exchange for luxury goods, such as perfumes, wool, and bronze swords. Remnants of Mycenaean pottery have been found in many regions of the Mediterranean.
Mycenae reached its peak of wealth and power in the 1300s and early 1200s B.C. During that period, the city had a palace surrounded by fortress walls that also enclosed a cluster of shrines. Most people lived in a large settlement outside the walls. Around 1250 B.C., Mycenae was damaged by fire, perhaps during an enemy attack, and the city’s importance declined. By 1100 B.C., Mycenae was only a village. Several centuries later, Mycenae again flourished, with carved stone water tanks, baths, and a temple dedicated to either Athena or Hera. For a brief period in the 400s B.C.,Mycenae was an independent city-state*. However, after the classical* period, Mycenae once again decayed as its inhabitants drifted away. By the time the Greek geographer Pausanias visited the area in the A.D. 100s, little remained of once-great Mycenae.
The modern discovery of the Mycenaean civilization began in 1876, when Heinrich Schliemann, a German excavator, uncovered prehistoric graves at Mycenae. Some of the graves contained treasures and appeared to be royal tombs. In one tomb, Schliemann found a golden mask of a king or warrior, and he mistakenly believed that he had discovered the burial place of Agamemnon, the legendary king of Mycenae and hero of the Trojan War. However, since Schliemann’s time, archaeologists* have found several tombs at the bottom of wells, or shafts. Some contained bronze weapons and precious artwork, such as a bowl of rock crystal with a handle in the shape of a duck’s head. The people of Mycenae buried their honored dead in beehive-shaped chambers or vaults made of stone blocks. The most famous chamber tomb is the Treasury of Atreus. These tombs contained richly decorated weapons and vessels of precious metal. The warlike character and love of hunting is reflected in the contents of these tombs. Items found in these graves are scholars’ chief source of information about ancient Mycenae.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
Although little remains of the temples, houses, palaces, or fortress walls of ancient Mycenae, the main entrance of the city’s citadel* can still be seen today. The Lion’s Gate is a huge stone threshold containing a sculpted relief of two lions standing beside a column, a symbol of the city’s once great palace. Scholars have also uncovered evidence of the Mycenaean language, an early form of Greek, in Mycenaean ruins. (See also Archaeology of Ancient Sites; Bronze Age, Greek; Death and Burial; Greece, History of; Iliad; Languages and Dialects; Monarchs, Greek; Odyssey.)
* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
* citadel fortified place or stronghold that commands a city