Ancient History & Civilisation


From Indo-Europeans to Mycenaeans

When did the people living in and around the central Mediterranean Sea in the locations that make up Greece become Greeks? No simple answer is possible, because the concept of identity includes not just the social and material conditions of life but also ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic traditions. So far as the available evidence shows, the Mycenaeans of the second millennium B.C. were the first population in Greece that spoke Greek. By that date, then, groups of people clearly existed whom we can call Greeks. No records tell us what the Mycenaeans called themselves; in Greek, as it developed in the historical period, they referred to their country as “Hellas” and themselves as “Hellenes,” from the name of a legendary chief from central Greece, Hellen (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.3.2). Those terms remain the proper usage in Greek today. “Greece” and “Greek,” in fact, come from Latin, the language of the Romans.

The deepest origins of the language of the Greeks and the other components of their identity lie deeper in the past than Mycenaean times, but tracing those origins remains a challenge because written records do not exist from such early times. Scholarly investigation of the fundamental components of ancient Greek ethnic and cultural identity has centered on two major issues: the significance of the Indo-European heritage of ancient Greeks in the period c. 4500–2000 B.C., and the consequences for Greeks of their interactions with the older civilizations of the Near East, Egypt in particular, in the second millennium. Even though the details of these processes of cultural formation remain exceptionally controversial, on a general level it is clear that both these sources of influence affected the construction of Greek identity in lasting ways.

There are definite sources of influence on early Greek culture to be found in the history of the second millennium, for which we have significant archaeological evidence and even some written documents. Before the rise of Mycenaean civilization in mainland Greece, Minoan civilization flourished on the large island of Crete. The Minoans, who did not speak Greek, had grown rich through complex agriculture and seaborne trade with the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt. The Minoans passed on this tradition of intercultural contact to the civilization of the Mycenaeans, whom they greatly influenced before losing their power after the middle of the millennium. The centers of Mycenaean civilization were destroyed in the period from about 1200 to 1000 B.C. as part of widespread turmoil throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. The descendants of the Greeks who survived these catastrophes eventually revived Greek civilization after the Dark Age (1000–750).


The central issue concerning the Indo-European background of Greek identity and culture is whether groups of peoples whom we call Indo-Europeans migrated into prehistoric Europe over many centuries and radically changed the nature of the lives of people already there, including the indigenous inhabitants of Greece. Debate continues over the location of the homeland of the earliest Indo-Europeans, but the most likely suggestion seems to be either central Asia or Anatolia. Recent though controversial research in computer analysis of linguistic evidence seems to tip the balance in favor of Anatolia. The final phase of Indo-European migration caused devastation across Europe around 2000 B.C., according to the also controversial hypothesis that aggressive peoples at that time moved in large groups across vast distances. The Greeks of the historical period are then seen as the descendants of this group of invaders.

The concept of an original Indo-European identity is constructed from the later history of language. Linguists long ago recognized that a single language had been the earliest ancestor of most of the major ancient and modern groups of languages of western Europe (including, among others, Greek, Latin, and English), of the Slavic languages, of Persian (Iranian), and of various languages such as Sanskrit spoken on the Indian subcontinent. They therefore bestowed the name “Indo-Europeans” on the original speakers of this ancestral language. Since the original language had disappeared by evolving into its different descendant languages well before the invention of writing, its only traces survive in the words of the later languages derived from it. Early Indo-European, for example, had a single word for night, which passed down as Greek nux (nuktos in the genitive case), Latin nox or noctis, Vedic (the type of Sanskrit used in the ancient epic poetry of India) nakt-, English night, Spanish noche, French nuit, German Nacht, Russiannoch, and so on. To give another example: that English speakers have the words I and me, two completely dissimilar pronouns, to refer to themselves in different grammatical contexts is a feature inherited from the pronouns of Indo-European.


Map 2. Areas of Indo-European Language Groups

c. 4500–2000 B.C.: Movements of Indo-European peoples into Europe?

c. 3000–2500 B.C.: Bronze metallurgy under way in the Balkans and on the island of Crete.

c. 3000–2000 B.C.: Development of Mediterranean polyculture.

c. 2200 B.C.: Earliest Cretan palaces of Minoan civilization.

c. 2000 B.C.: Violent destruction of many European sites.

c. 1700 B.C.: Earthquakes destroy early Cretan palaces.

c. 1600–1500 B.C.: Shaft graves at Mycenae on Greek mainland.

c. 1500–1450 B.C.: Earliest Mycenaean tholos tombs.

c. 1400 B.C.: Earliest Mycenaean palaces.

c. 1370 B.C.: Palace of Knossos on Crete destroyed.

c. 1300–1200 B.C.: Highpoint of Mycenaean palace culture.

c. 1200–1000 B.C.: Violent disturbances across the Aegean region in the era of the Sea Peoples.

c. 1000 B.C.: Mycenaean palace society no longer functioning.

Scholars of linguistics think that words in later languages that descended from the original language of the earliest Indo-Europeans can offer hints about important characteristics of that group’s original society. For example, the name of the chief Indo-European divinity, a male god, survives in the similar sounds of Zeus pater and Jupiter, the names given to the chief god in Greek and Latin, respectively. This evidence leads to the conclusion that Indo-European society was patriarchal, with fathers being not just parents but rather the authority figure controlling the household. Other words suggest that Indo-European society was also patrilocal (the wife moving to live with the husband’s family group) and patrilineal (the line of descent of children being reckoned through their father). Indo-European language also included references to kings, a detail suggesting a hierarchical and differentiated society rather than an egalitarian one. Finally, both linguistic and archaeological evidence was taken to mean that Indo-European males were warlike and competitive. Since the language of the Greeks, the fundamental component of their identity, indisputably came from Indo-European origins, they represented one linguistically identifiable group descended from Indo-European ancestors.

The most controversial interpretation of the significance of the early Indo-Europeans argues that they invaded Europe in waves and imposed patriarchal, hierarchical, and violent values on the peoples they found there. On this hypothesis, the indigenous populations of prehistoric Europe had been generally egalitarian, peaceful, and matrifocal (centered on women as mothers), and the Indo-European invasions destroyed these qualities. This argument further asserts that these earlier Europeans had originally worshipped female gods as their principal divinities, but the Indo-Europeans forcibly degraded these goddesses in favor of their male deities, such as Zeus, the king of the gods for the Greeks. This brutal transformation would have begun about 4500 B.C., with different groups of Indo-Europeans moving into Europe over the following centuries, eventually sacking and ruining many pre–Indo-European sites in Europe around 2000 B.C.

Opponents of the theory of the Indo-European origin of other aspects of the Greeks’ culture except for language argue that no evidence clearly shows Indo-Europeans migrating into Europe as distinct groups powerful enough to abolish already-existing social structures and beliefs and force their own practices on the people already there. It may even be that Indo-European social traditions had never differed significantly from those originally evolved by the non–Indo-European societies of prehistoric Europe. Therefore, characteristics of later, historical Greek society, such as patriarchy and social inequality for women, might in truth have already existed among the indigenous inhabitants of Greece. For example, another theory proposes that Stone Age male hunter-gatherers had pushed human society down the road toward patriarchy by kidnapping women from each other’s bands in an attempt to improve their own band’s ability to reproduce itself and thus survive. Since men as hunters had experience traveling far from base camp, they were the ones to raid other bands. In this way, men would have acquired dominance over women long before the date when early Indo-Europeans are supposed to have initiated their invasions of Europe.

On this view, the indigenous society of Europe became patriarchal without outside influence, even though its religion paid great respect to female divinities, as evidenced by the thousands of Venus figurines (female statuettes with large breasts and hips) uncovered in European archaeological excavations of prehistoric sites, and by the many goddesses prominent in Greek religion. Alternatively, the growth of social inequality between men and women may have been a consequence of the changes accompanying the development of plow agriculture and large-scale herding in late Stone Age Europe (see chapter 1). Scholars who deemphasize the significance of the Indo-Europeans as a source of cultural change argue further against blaming them for the widespread destruction of European sites around 2000 B.C. Instead, they suggest, exhaustion of the soil, leading to intense competition for land, and internal political turmoil could have motivated the violent clashes that devastated various European settlements at the end of the third millennium.

One aspect of the question of Greek identity that has aroused fierce controversy is the relation between Greece and the Near East, especially Egypt. Some nineteenth-century scholars downplayed or even denied any significant cultural influence of the Near East on Greece, despite the clear evidence that the ancient Greeks acknowledged with appreciation that they had learned a great deal from those peoples outside Greece who, they fully recognized, represented more-ancient civilizations. Greeks with knowledge of the past proclaimed that they had taken a lot in particular from the older civilization of Egypt, especially in religion. Herodotus reported that priests in Egypt told him that as well as being the first people to create altars, festivals, statues, and temples of the gods, the Egyptians had initiated the tradition of bestowing epithets or titles on divinities, and that the Greeks had adopted this tradition from Egypt—and, Herodotus adds, the evidence the priests provided him proved that “these claims were valid” (The Histories 2.4.2).

Modern research agrees with the view of the ancient Greeks that they had learned much from Egypt. The clearest evidence of the deep influence of Egyptian culture on Greek is the store of fundamental religious ideas that flowed from Egypt to Greece, such as the geography of the underworld, the weighing of the souls of the dead in scales, and the life-giving properties of fire, as commemorated in the initiation ceremonies of the international cult of the goddess Demeter of Eleusis (a famous site in Athenian territory). Greek mythology, the stories that Greeks told themselves about their deepest origins and their relations to the gods, was infused with stories and motifs with roots in Egypt and the Near East. But the influence was not limited to religion. For one thing, Greek sculptors in the Archaic Age chiseled their statues according to a set of proportions established by Egyptian artists.

Archaeology reveals that people living in Greece had trade and diplomatic contacts with the Near East at least as early as the middle of the second millennium B.C. What cannot be true, however, is the modern theory that Egyptians invaded and colonized mainland Greece in this period. Egyptian records refer to Greeks as foreigners, not as colonists. Furthermore, much of the contact between Greece and the Near East in this early period took place through intermediaries, above all the seafaring traders from the island of Crete. In any case, in thinking about the “cultural debt” of one group to another, it is crucial not to fall into the trap of seeing one group as the passive recipient of ideas or skills or traditions transmitted by a superior group. What one group takes over from another is always adapted and reinterpreted according to the system of values of the group doing the receiving. Everything they receive from others they transform so as to give the innovations functions and meanings suited to their own purposes and cultural traditions. When the Greeks learned from the peoples of the Near East and Egypt, they made what they learned their own. This is how cultural identity is forged, not by mindless imitation or passive reception. The Greeks themselves constructed their own identity, based above all on shared religious practices and a common language. In the aspects of their culture that they originally took from others, they put their own stamp on what they learned from foreigners. The construction of Greek identity took a long time. It would be pointless to try to fix the beginning of this complex process at any single moment in history. Rather than look for a nonexistent single origin of Greek identity, we should try to identify the multiple sources of cultural influence that flowed together over the long run to produce Greek culture as we find it in later times.


The late Bronze Age (the second millennium B.C.) provides crucial evidence for understanding how Greeks became Greeks. The “first civilizations of Europe” belong to this period: Minoan civilization on the large island of Crete (southeast of the mainland peninsula of Greece) and on other smaller Mediterranean islands, and Mycenaean civilization on the mainland and on some of the islands and coast of the Aegean. The Minoans, who spoke a still-unidentified language, built a prosperous civilization before the Greek-speaking Mycenaeans. Both populations had extensive trading contacts with the Near East, complex agricultural and metallurgical technologies, elaborate architecture, striking art, and a marked taste for luxury. They also inhabited a dangerous world whose perils ultimately overwhelmed all their civilized sophistication.

The forerunners of these civilizations in the third millennium B.C. had developed advanced metallurgy in bronze, lead, silver, and gold—a technology that had deep effects on Minoan and Mycenaean life, from war to farming to the creation of new objects of wealth and status. These metallurgical advances apparently took place independent of similar developments in the Balkans and the Near East. Devising innovative ways to alloy metals at high temperatures, Aegean smiths created more-lethal weapons for warfare, new luxury goods, and more-durable and effective tools for agriculture and construction. This new technology made metal weaponry more effective in dealing death. A copper weapon had offered relatively few advantages over a stone one, because this soft metal easily lost its shape and edge. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was much stronger and able to hold a razor edge; its invention made possible the production of durable metal daggers, swords, and spearheads. The earliest Aegean daggers have been found at third-millennium Troy in western Anatolia. The dagger soon became standard equipment for warriors in the Bronze Age and an early entry in the catalogue of weapons that fueled the arms races familiar in human history. Daggers gradually lengthened into swords, increasing the killing efficiency of these new weapons.

Bronze Age smiths could also add expensive decorations to weapons and jewelry to make them objects for display and ostentation, serving as highly visible symbols of their owners’ wealth and rank in society. Since human beings seem by nature to be status-seeking organisms, new and more-expensive metal objects gave people yet another way to set themselves apart, if they could afford it. For example, elaborately decorated weapons helped mark the division between men and women in society because they signified the masculine roles of hunter and warrior that had emerged long ago in the division of labor of hunter-gatherers. Since the desire to accumulate wealth in the form of metal objects and to possess costly examples as status symbols stimulated demand for metals and for the skilled workers who could fashion them, the creation of a new kind of wealth and status represented one of the most important social consequences of the development of metallurgy. Greater availability of such objects made even more people desire them, further stimulating demand across society. This process in turn affected people’s expectations about what constituted rewards appropriate for their labor or for displaying their status. Now they expected to be able to acquire goods made of metal—utilitarian objects, such as tools, and luxury goods, such as jewelry. The elite also prized the products of other specialized crafts perfected in the Near East, such as decorative pieces carved from imported ivory. Growing numbers of crafts specialists in turn swelled Bronze Age Aegean settlements, though the communities remained quite small by modern urban standards. Some of these specialists were itinerant Near Easterners who had traveled west looking for new markets for their skills. They brought with them not only their technological expertise but also a repertoire of myths that influenced the peoples with whom they interacted. In this way they became indirect agents of cultural change.

Mediterranean polyculture—the cultivation of olives, grapes, and grain together in one agricultural system—also grew common in the third millennium, as people began to make use of sharper and better metal tools and to exploit new plants to expand their diet. The emergence of this system, which still dominates Mediterranean agriculture, had two important consequences: an increase in the food supply, which stimulated population growth, and further diversification and specialization of agriculture. This newly diversified agriculture in turn produced valuable new products: olive oil and wine, both of which required new storage techniques for local use and for trade. The manufacture of giant storage jars therefore gained momentum, adding another specialization to the crafts of the period. Specialization in the production of food and goods also meant that the specialists in these fields had no time to grow their own food or fashion the variety of things they needed for everyday life. They had to acquire their food and other goods through exchange.

Society therefore became increasingly interdependent, both economically and socially. In the smaller villages of early Stone Age Greece, reciprocity had probably governed exchanges among the population of self-sufficient farmers. Reciprocal exchange did not aim at economic gain but rather promoted a social value: I give you some of what I produce, and you in return give me some of what you produce. We exchange not because either of us necessarily needs what the other produces, but to reaffirm our social alliances in a small group. Bronze Age society in the Aegean region eventually reached a level of economic interdependence that went far beyond reciprocity and far surpassed in its complexity the economies that had been characteristic of even larger Neolithic villages such as Çatal Hüyük.


People had inhabited the large, fertile island of Crete for several thousand years before the emergence about 2200–2000 B.C. of the system that has earned the title of the earliest Aegean civilization. This civilization, which was characterized by large architectural complexes today usually labeled “palaces,” relied on an interdependent economy based primarily on redistribution controlled by the rulers. The first, “pre-palace,” settlers in Crete presumably immigrated across the sea from nearby Anatolia about 6000 B.C. These Neolithic farming families originally lived in small settlements nestled close to fertile agricultural land, like their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe. In the third millennium B.C., however, the new technological developments in metallurgy and agriculture began to affect society on Crete dramatically. By about 2200 or somewhat later, huge many-chambered buildings (the so-called palaces) began to appear on Crete, usually near but not on the coast. The palaces were multistoried and sprawling, their walls decorated with colorful paintings of ships on the sea, leaping dolphins, and gorgeous women. Today this Cretan society is called Minoan after King Minos, the legendary ruler of the island. The palaces housed the rulers and their servants and served as central storage facilities, while the general population clustered around the palaces in houses built one right next to the other, in smaller towns nearby, and in country houses in outlying areas.

Earthquakes leveled the first Cretan palaces about 1700 B.C., but the Minoans rebuilt on an even grander scale in the following centuries. Accounting records preserved on clay tablets reveal how these large structures served as the hubs of the island’s top-down, redistributive economy. Probably influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Minoans at first developed a pictographic script to symbolize objects, for the purpose of keeping such records. This system evolved into a more linear form of writing to express phonetic sounds. Unlike cuneiform or hieroglyphics, this system of writing was a true syllabary, in which characters stood for the sound of the syllables of words. This script, used during the first half of the second millennium B.C., is today called Linear A. The identity of the language that it recorded remains unknown, and linguistic specialists can decipher only some of the words; recent scholarship suggesting that the language of Linear A belonged to the Indo-European family has not convinced the majority of scholars. In other ways, such as their religious architecture, the Minoans certainly differed from the population on the Greek mainland. Since Minoan civilization had direct contact with and great influence on the mainland inhabitants, however, it is appropriate to treat it as part of the early history of Greece.

Linear A is sufficiently well understood to see that it was used for records in the form of lists: records of goods received and goods paid out, inventories of stored goods, livestock, landholdings, and personnel. With their emphasis on accounting, the Minoans kept records of everything fromchariots to perfumes. The receipts record payments owed, with careful notation of any deficits in the amount actually paid in. The records of disbursements from the palace storerooms cover ritual offerings to the gods, rations to personnel, and raw materials for crafts production, such as metal issued to bronze smiths. None of the tablets records any exchange rate between different categories of goods, such as, for example, a ratio to state how much grain counted as the equivalent of a sheep. Nor do the tablets reveal any use of bullion as money in exchanges. (The invention of coinage lay a thousand years in the future.)

The palace society of Minoan Crete therefore appears to have operated primarily on a redistributive economic system: The central authority told producers how much they had to contribute to the central collection facility and also decided what each member of the society would receive for subsistence and reward. In other words, the palaces did not support a market economy, in which agricultural products and manufactured goods are exchanged through buying and selling. Similar redistributive economic systems based on official monopolies had existed in Mesopotamia for some time, and, like them, the Cretan redistributive arrangement required both ingenuity and a complicated administration. To handle receipt and disbursement of olive oil and wine, for example, the palaces had vast storage areas filled with hundreds of gigantic jars next to storerooms crammed with bowls, cups, and dippers. Scribes meticulously recorded what came in and what went out by writing on clay tablets kept in the palace. Specific administrators had the job of collecting quotas of the most valuable items—animals and textiles—from the various districts into which the palace’s territory was divided. The process of collection and redistribution applied to crafts specialists as well as to food producers, and the palace’s administrative officials set specifications for crafts producers’ contributions, which amounted to work quotas. Although not everyone is likely to have participated in the redistribution system, it apparently dominated the Cretan economy, minimizing the exchange of goods through markets. People out in the countryside perhaps occasionally sold goods to one another, but the volume of exchange in these small markets never remotely rivaled the scope of the redistributive economic system of the palaces.

Overseas trade probably operated as a monopoly through the palace system, too, with little role for independent merchants and traders. The Minoan palaces conducted a great deal of commerce by sea, seeking raw materials and luxury goods. Copper could be obtained on Cyprus, but the tin needed to make bronze was only found in a few very distant locations. Therefore, trade for this essential metal connected Crete, if indirectly, to places as far away as Britain and even Afghanistan. Egypt was a favorite destination for Minoan seafarers, who are depicted in Egyptian tomb reliefs as bringing gifts or tribute to Egypt’s rulers. Some Minoans evidently stayed on in Egypt as mercenary soldiers or artists, and Minoan-style frescoes (wall paintings on plaster) have been found at Avaris (Tel el-Dab’a) there. Minoan Crete was also in contact with the Near East and the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, with traders and crafts specialists from those areas probably voyaging westward to Crete as often as the Minoans went eastward.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoan civilization operated smoothly and peacefully for centuries. The absence of fortification walls around the palaces, towns, and isolated country houses of Minoan Crete imply that Minoan settlements saw no need to defend themselves against one other. By contrast, contemporary settlements elsewhere around the Aegean Sea and in Anatolia had elaborate defensive walls. The remains of the newer Minoan palaces, such as the famous one at Knossos on the north side of the island (fig. 2.1)—with its hundreds of rooms in five stories, storage jars holding 240,000 gallons, indoor plumbing, and brightly colored scenes painted on the walls—have led many to see Minoan society as especially prosperous, peaceful, and happy. The prominence of women in palace frescoes and the numerous figurines of bosomy goddesses found on Cretan sites have even prompted speculation that Minoan society continued to be a female-dominated culture of the kind that, as discussed earlier, has sometimes been postulated as the indigenous society of prehistoric Europe. But the wealth of weaponry found in the graves of Cretan men shows that expertise in combat and martial display bestowed special status in Minoan society. The weapons strongly suggest that men dominated in the palace society of Minoan Crete, and it is common to speak of “princes” or “kings” as the leaders in this society of palaces.


The long-distance international trade of Minoan Crete established extensive overseas contacts for the residents of the palaces, and this network of trade gained strength as the Minoans learned to build still larger ships that could carry more cargo and survive better in Mediterranean storms. Their daring sailors voyaged long distances not only to Egypt and the other civilizations of the Near East, but also to the islands of the Aegean and southern Greece. On the Greek mainland they encountered another civilization today called Mycenaean, after its most famous archaeological site. Inspired by the Greek poet Homer’s tale of the Trojan War, archaeologists have uncovered the Bronze Age site of Mycenae in the Peloponnese (the large peninsula that is southern Greece), with its elaborate citadel on multiple terraces and fortification walls built of large stones meticulously fitted together (fig. 2.3 on p. 44). The discoveries at Mycenae gained such renown that “Mycenaean” has become the general term for the Bronze Age civilization of mainland Greece in the second millennium B.C., although neither Mycenae nor any other of the settlements of Mycenaean Greece ever ruled Bronze Age Greece as a united state.


Fig. 2.1: The Minoan-era palace at Knossos on Crete was a sprawling, multistory building with extensive areas for storage of goods and large public gatherings. Centers such as this were the hubs of the “top-down,” redistributive economic systems of the Minoans. © / Ralf Siemieniec.

The discovery in the nineteenth century A.D. of treasure-filled graves at Mycenae thrilled the European world. Constructed as stone-lined shafts, these graves entombed corpses buried with golden jewelry, including heavy necklaces festooned with pendants, gold and silver vessels, bronze weapons decorated with scenes of wild animals inlaid in precious metals, and delicately painted pottery. The first excavator of Mycenae, the businessman-turned-archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, thought that he had found the grave of King Agamemnon (fig. 2.2), who commanded the Greeks at Troy in Homer’s poem The Iliad. In truth, however, the shaft graves date to the sixteenth century B.C., long before the Trojan War of the twelfth century. The artifacts from the shaft graves point to a warrior culture organized in independent settlements ruled by powerful commanders, who enriched themselves by conducting raiding expeditions near and far, as well as by dominating local farmers. The retrospective story of the Trojan War told in The Iliad refers, at least in part, to the aims of Mycenaean society as they passed down to later ages in oral literature. The aggressive heroes of Homer’s poem sail far from their homes in Greece to attack the citadel of the Trojans in western Anatolia. Their announced mission is to rescue Helen, the Greek queen whom the son of the king of Troy had lured away from her husband, but they were intensely focused on gathering booty by sacking Troy and other places in the neighborhood. The precious objects and symbols of wealth and power found in the graves dating long before the Trojan War show that a society of warriors with goals similar to those of the male heroes of The Iliad was in place at least four centuries earlier than the setting of the poem’s story.


Fig. 2.2: This gold mask was discovered in a grave at Mycenae. Sometimes called the “Death Mask” of Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army in the Trojan War, its identity and function remain mysteries. It does reveal, however, how rich the rulers of Mycenae became: They could afford to demonstrate their superior social status by burying such valuable objects. Wikimedia Commons.

The construction of another kind of burial chamber, called tholos tombs—spectacular underground domed chambers built in beehive shapes from closely fitted stones—marks the next period in Mycenaean society, beginning in the fifteenth century B.C. The architectural details of the tholostombs and the Near-Eastern-art-inspired styles of the burial goods found in them testify to the far-flung contacts that Mycenaean rulers maintained throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Reference to Mycenaean soldiers in Egyptian records indicates that mainland warriors could take up service far from home.

Contact with the civilization of Minoan Crete was tremendously influential for Mycenaean civilization; Minoan artifacts and artistic motifs turn up on the mainland in profusion. The evidence for contact between Minoans and Mycenaeans raises a thorny problem in the explanation of cultural change. Since the art and goods of the Mycenaeans in the middle of the second millennium B.C. display many features clearly reminiscent of Cretan design, the archaeologist who excavated Knossos, Arthur Evans, argued that the Minoans had inspired Mycenaean civilization by sending colonists to the mainland, as they undeniably had to various Aegean islands, such as Thera. This demotion of Mycenaean civilization to secondary status offended the excavators of Mycenae, and a continuing debate among scholars raged over the relationship between the two cultures. They were certainly not identical; they spoke different languages. The Mycenaeans made burnt offerings to the gods; the Minoans did not. The Minoans constructed sanctuaries across the landscape in caves, on mountaintops, and in country villas; the mainlanders built no shrines separate from their central dwellings. When in the fourteenth century B.C. the mainlanders started to build palace complexes reminiscent of those on Crete, the Mycenaeans designed their palaces around megarons, spacious reception halls with huge ceremonial hearths and thrones for the rulers; the Minoans had not done that in their palaces. Some Mycenaean palaces had more than one megaron, which could soar two stories high with columns to support a roof above the second-floor balconies of the palace.

The mystery surrounding the relationship between the Minoans and the Mycenaeans deepened with the startling discovery in the palace at Knossos of tablets written in an adaptation of Linear A. This same hybrid script had also been found on tablets excavated at Mycenaean sites on the mainland, where scholars called it Linear B. Michael Ventris, a young English architect interested in codes, startled the scholarly world in the 1950s by demonstrating that the language being written with Linear B was in fact Greek and not the Minoan language of Linear A. Because the Linear B tablets from Crete dated from before the final destruction of the Knossos palace in about 1370 B.C., they meant that the palace administration had for some time been keeping its records in a foreign language—Greek—rather than in Cretan. Presumably this change in the language used for official record keeping means that Greek-speaking Mycenaeans from the mainland had come to dominate the palaces of Crete, but whether by violent invasion or some kind of peaceful accommodation remains unknown. Certainly the Linear B tablets imply that the mainland had not long, if ever, remained a secondary power to Minoan Crete.




Archaeology helps us uncover the basis of the power of Mycenaean society from about 1500 to 1250 B.C. Archaeologists love cemeteries, not because of morbid fascination with death but because ancient peoples so often buried their dead with goods that tell us about life in the society. Bronze Age tombs in Greece reveal that no wealthy Mycenaean male went to the grave without his fighting equipment. The complete suit of Mycenaean bronze armor found in a fourteenth-century B.C. tomb from Dendra in the northeastern Peloponnese shows how extensive first-class individual equipment could be. This dead warrior had worn a complete bronze cuirass (torso guard) protecting his front and back, an adjustable skirt of bronze plates, bronze greaves (shin guards), shoulder plates, and a collar. On his head had rested a boar’s-tusk helmet with metal cheek pieces. Next to his body in the grave lay his leather shield, bronze and clay vessels, and a bronze comb with gold teeth. Originally his bronze swords had lain beside him, but tomb robbers had stolen them before the archaeologists found his resting place. This warrior had spared no cost in equipping himself with the best technology in armor and weaponry, and his family thought it worthwhile as a demonstration of status to shoulder the expense of consigning this costly equipment to the ground forever rather than pass it on to the next generation. His relatives expected other people to see them making this expensive demonstration as proof of their superior wealth and status.

Mycenaean warriors outfitted like this man could ride into battle in the latest military hardware—the lightweight, two-wheeled chariot pulled by horses. These revolutionary vehicles, which some scholars think were introduced by Indo-Europeans migrating from central Asia, first appeared in various Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies not long after 2000 B.C. The first Aegean depiction of such a chariot occurs on a Mycenaean grave marker from about 1500 B.C. Wealthy people evidently craved this dashing new invention not only for war but also as proof of their social status, much like modern people rushing to replace their horse-drawn wagons with cars after the invention of the automobile. It has been suggested that the Dendra armor was for a warrior fighting from a chariot, not for an infantryman, on the grounds that a foot soldier would not be able to move freely enough in the metal casing of such a suit. On this argument, chariots carrying archers provided the principal arm of Mycenaean armies, supplemented by skirmishers fighting on foot, not unlike the tank battles of World War II, in which infantrymen crept along into battle in the shadow of a force of tanks as mobile artillery. These supplementary infantrymen escorted the chariot forces, guarded the camps at the rear of the action, chased fugitive enemies after the main clash of battle, and served as attack troops on terrain inaccessible to chariots. Many of these Mycenaean-era foot soldiers may have been hired mercenaries from abroad.

The Mycenaeans in mainland Greece had reached their pinnacle of prosperity between about 1300 and 1200 B.C., the period during which the enormous domed tomb at Mycenae, called the Treasury of Atreus, was constructed. Its elaborately decorated facade and soaring roof testify to the confidence of Mycenae’s warrior princes. The last phase of the extensive palace at Pylos on the west coast of the Peloponnese also dates to this time. It was outfitted with everything that wealthy people of the Greek Bronze Age required for comfortable living, including elaborate and colorful wall paintings, storerooms crammed with food, and even a royal bathroom fitted with a built-in tub and intricate plumbing.

War was clearly a principal concern of those Mycenaean men who could afford its expensive equipment. The Mycenaeans spent nothing, by contrast, on the construction of large religious buildings, as Near Easterners did on their giant temples. The nature of religion in mainland Bronze Age Greece remains largely obscure, although the usual view is that the Mycenaeans worshipped primarily the male-dominated pantheon traditionally associated with the idea of an Indo-European warrior culture. The names of numerous deities known from later Greek religion occur in the Linear B tablets, such as Hera, Zeus, Poseidon, and Dionysus, as well as the names of divinities unknown in later times. The name or title potnia, referring to a female divinity as “mistress” or “ruler,” is very common in the tablets, emphasizing the importance of goddesses in Bronze Age religion.

The development of extensive sea travel in the Bronze Age enabled not only traders but also warriors to journey far from home. Traders, crafts specialists, and entrepreneurs seeking metals sailed from Egypt and the Near East to Greece and beyond, taking great risks in search of great rewards. Mycenaeans established colonies at various locations along the coast of the Mediterranean, leaving the security of home to struggle for better opportunities in new locations. Seaborne Mycenaean warriors also dominated and probably put an end to the palace society of Minoan Crete in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C., perhaps in wars for conquest or commercial rivalry in Mediterranean international trade. By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Mycenaeans had displaced the Minoans as the most powerful civilization of the Aegean.


The emergence in the Bronze Age of extensive sea travel for trading and raiding had put the cultures of the Aegean and the Near East in closer contact than ever before. The wealth that could be won by traders and entrepreneurs, especially those seeking metals, promoted contacts between the older civilizations at the Mediterranean’s eastern end and the younger ones farther west. The civilizations of Mesopotamia and Anatolia overshadowed those of Crete and Greece in the size of their cities and the development of extensive written legal codes. Egypt remained an especially favored destination of Mycenaean voyagers throughout the late Bronze Age because these Greeks valued the exchange of goods and ideas with the prosperous and complex civilization of that ancient civilization. By around 1250–1200 B.C., however, the Mediterranean network of long-established states and trading partners was weakening. The New Kingdom in Egypt was losing its cohesion; foreign invaders destroyed the powerful Hittite kingdom in Anatolia; Mesopotamia underwent a period of political turmoil; and the rich palace societies of the Aegean disintegrated. The causes of these disruptions are poorly documented, but the most likely reasons are internal strife between local powers and overexploitation of natural resources in overspecialized and centralized economies. These troubles, whose duration we cannot accurately gauge, apparently caused numerous groups of people to leave their homes, seeking new places to live, or at least weaker victims to plunder. These movements of peoples throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East further damaged or even destroyed the political stability, economic prosperity, and international contacts of the civilizations of most of these lands, including that of the Mycenaeans. This period of violent turmoil certainly lasted for decades; in some regions it may have gone on much longer. As a rough generalization, it seems accurate to say that the period from about 1200 to 1000 B.C. saw numerous catastrophes for Mediterranean civilizations. The consequences for Greeks were disastrous.

Egyptian and Hittite documents record the impact these disturbances inflicted. They speak of foreign invasions, some from the sea. According to his own account of attacks by warriors landing from the sea, the pharaoh Ramesses III around 1182 B.C. defeated a fearsome coalition of invaders from the north who had fought their way to the edge of Egypt: “All at once the peoples were on the move, dispersed in war. . . . No land could repulse their attacks. . . . They extended their grasp over territories as far as the circuit of the earth, their spirits brimming with confidence and believing: ‘Our plans will succeed!’ . . . The ones who came as far as my border, their seed is no more, their heart and their soul are done for forever and ever. . . . They were dragged in, surrounded, and laid prostrate on the shore, killed, and thrown into piles from tail to head” (Pritchard,Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 262–263).

The Egyptian records indicate that many different groups made up these Sea Peoples, as the attackers are called today. We can guess that these raiders originated from Mycenaean Greece, the Aegean islands, Anatolia, Cyprus, and various points in the Near East. They did not constitute a united or uniform population; rather, they should be thought of as independent bands displaced and set in motion by the local political and economic troubles of their homelands. Some had previously been mercenary soldiers in the armies of once-powerful rulers, whom they eventually turned against in a grab for power and booty. Some came from far away to conduct raids in foreign lands. One scholarly hypothesis explaining, at least in part, the origin of these catastrophes theorizes that this period saw a reconceptualization of military tactics. Previously, the key to success in battle had been to deploy chariots carrying archers. Bronze Age kings waging war had supplemented their chariot forces with infantrymen, mostly foreign mercenaries. By around 1200B.C., the argument goes, these hired foot soldiers had realized that they could use their long swords and javelins to defeat the chariot forces on the battlefield by swarming in a mass against their vehicle-mounted overlords. Emboldened by this realization of their power and motivated by a lust for booty, spontaneously formed bands of mercenaries rebelled against their former employers, plundering and looting. They conducted raids on treasure-packed settlements, which were no longer able to defend themselves with their old tactics that depended on chariots. Lacking any firm organization or long-term planning, the rebels fatally weakened the civilizations they betrayed and raided, but they were incapable of or uninterested in putting any new political systems into place to fill the void created by their destruction of the Mycenaean world.

Whether this explanation for the downfall of the civilization of the Greek Bronze Age will prove correct remains to be seen, if only because we have to ask why it took the mercenary infantrymen so long to grasp their advantage over chariots, if they truly had one, and then to put it into effect to crush their opponents. But one important assumption of this scenario does ring true: What archaeological evidence we have for the history of the Sea Peoples points not to one group spreading destruction across the eastern Mediterranean in a single tidal wave of violence, but rather to many separate bands and varied conflicts. The initial attacks and spreading destruction spurred a chain reaction of violence that put even more bands of raiders on the move over time.

These various groups most likely had different characteristics and different goals. Some bands of Sea Peoples were probably made up only of men conducting raids, who expected to return to their homeland eventually. Other groups of warriors may have brought their families along, searching for a new place in which to win a more-prosperous and secure existence than in the disturbed area from which they had voluntarily departed or had been violently driven by other raiders. Regardless of its composition, no band on the move could expect a friendly welcome on foreign shores; those looking to settle down had to be prepared to fight for new homes. The material damage such marauding bands of raiders would have inflicted would have been made worse by the social disruption their arrival in a new area would also have caused to the societies already in place. However common such migrations may have been—that they were widespread has been both affirmed and denied in modern scholarship—destruction and disruption were widespread in the Mediterranean in this period of the Sea Peoples. In the end, all this fighting and motion redrew the political map of the region, and perhaps its population map as well, although it is unclear how many groups actually resettled permanently at great distances from their original sites.

Even if the reasons for all the violent commotion of the period of the Sea Peoples must still be regarded as mysterious in our present state of knowledge, its dire consequences for Near Eastern and Greek civilization are undeniable. The once-mighty Hittite kingdom in Anatolia fell about 1200B.C., when invaders penetrated its borders and incessant raids cut its supply lines of raw materials. Its capital city, Hattusas, was burned to the ground and never re-inhabited, although smaller Neo-Hittite principalities survived for another five hundred years before falling to the armies of the Neo-Assyrian kingdom. The appearance of the Sea Peoples weakened Egypt’s New Kingdom by requiring a great military effort to repel them and by ruining Egypt’s international trade in the Mediterranean. Struggles for power between the pharaoh and the priests undermined the centralized authority of the monarchy as well, and by the middle of the eleventh century B.C., Egypt had shrunk to its old territorial core along the banks of the Nile. Egypt’s credit was ruined along with its international stature. When an eleventh-century Theban temple official named Wen-Amon traveled to Byblos in Phoenicia to buy cedar for a ceremonial boat, the city’s ruler insultingly demanded cash in advance. The Egyptian monarchy continued for centuries after the New Kingdom, but internal struggles for power between pharaohs and priests, combined with frequent attacks from abroad, prevented the reestablishment of centralized authority. Egypt never again assumed the role of an active and aggressive international power that it had enjoyed during much of the Old and New Kingdoms.

The calamities of this time also affected the copper-rich island of Cyprus and the flourishing cities along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The Greeks later called these coastal peoples the Phoenicians, apparently from the name of the valuable reddish-purple dye that they extracted from shellfish; they apparently called themselves Canaanites. The inhabitants of cities such as Ugarit on the coast of Syria thrived on international maritime commerce and enjoyed a lively polyglot culture. A catastrophic attack of the Sea Peoples overwhelmed Ugarit, but one of its most brilliant accomplishments lived on: the first alphabet. The letters representing the sounds of a phonetic alphabet offered a simpler and more flexible system of writing than the other writing systems of the ancient Near East or the syllabary of Linear A and B. This invention had emerged from about 1700 to 1500 B.C. in this eastern Mediterranean crossroads of cultures; its later form eventually became the base of the ancient Greek and Roman alphabets and, from there, modern Western alphabets.

The Mycenaeans’ wealth failed to protect them from the spreading violence of the late Bronze Age. Ominous signs of the dangers of this period occur in Linear B tablets from Pylos, which record the disposition of troops to guard this unwalled site around 1200B.C. The rulers of most palaces had constructed walls for defense built from stones so large that later Greeks thought that Cyclopes, one-eyed giants, must have built these massive fortifications (fig. 2.3). The defensive walls at locations such as Mycenae and Tiryns in the eastern Peloponnese could have served to protect these palaces situated near the coast against raiders attacking from the sea. The palace at Gla in central Greece, however, was located far enough from the coast that foreign pirates presented no threat, but it too erected a huge stone wall to defend against enemy attacks. The wall at Gla reveals, then, that Mycenaeans had above all to defend themselves against other Mycenaeans, or perhaps their own mercenaries, not against seaborne raiders. Never united in one state, the rival “princes” of Mycenaean Greece by the late thirteenth century B.C. were fighting each other at least as much as they were fighting foreigners.


Fig. 2.3: Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans in the Peloponnese and central Greece lived in politically centralized states with redistributive economies. Their centers, however, had massive stone fortification walls and gates like this one at Mycenae, a feature not found in Minoan civilization. Andreas Trepte,

Internal wars among the rulers of Mycenaean Greece, not foreign invasions, offer the most plausible explanation of the destruction of the palaces of the mainland in the period from about 1200 to 1000 B.C. Earthquakes probably increased the destructive consequences of these local wars; Greece is a seismically active region, and devastating quakes that killed many people are documented from later historical periods. Near-constant warfare placed great stress on the administration of the closely managed redistributive economies of the palaces and hindered recovery from earthquake damage. The eventual failure of the palace economies had a devastating effect on the large part of the Mycenaean population that depended on this system for its subsistence. Peasant farmers, who knew how to grow their own food, had a chance to go on supporting themselves even when the redistributive system for foodstuffs and goods broke down, if they were not killed in the violent disruptions. The inhabitants of the palaces, however, who depended on others to provide them food, starved when the system disappeared. Warriors left unattached by the disintegration of the rulers’ power set off to find new places to live, or at least to plunder others, forming roving bands of the kind remembered by the Egyptians as Sea Peoples. The later Greeks remembered an invasion of Dorians (speakers of the form of Greek characteristic of the northwest mainland) as the reason for the disasters that struck Bronze Age Greece, but archaeology suggests that the Dorians who did move into southern Greece most likely came in groups too small to cause such damage by themselves. Indeed, relatively small-scale movements of people, not massive invasions, probably characterized this era, as bands of warriors with no prospects at home emigrated from lands all around the eastern Mediterranean to become pirates for themselves or mercenaries for foreign potentates.

The damage done by the dissolution of the redistributive economies of Mycenaean Greece after 1200 B.C. took centuries to repair. Only Athens seems to have escaped wholesale disaster. In fact, the Athenians of the fifth century B.C. prided themselves on their unique status among the peoples of Classical Greece: “Sprung from the soil” of their homeland, as they called themselves, they had not been forced to emigrate in the turmoil that engulfed the rest of Greece in the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C. The nature of the Athenians’ boast gives some indication of the sorry fate of many other Greeks in the period c. 1200–1000 B.C. Uprooted from their homes, they wandered abroad in search of new territory to settle. The Ionian Greeks, who in later times inhabited the central coast of western Anatolia, dated their emigration from the mainland to the end of this period. Luxuries of Mycenaean civilization, like fine jewelry, knives inlaid with gold, and built-in bathtubs, disappeared. To an outside observer, Greek society at the end of the Mycenaean Age might have seemed destined for irreversible economic and social decline, even oblivion. As it happened, however, great changes were in the making that would eventually create the civilization and the cultural accomplishments that we today think of as the Golden Age of Greece.

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