Barbarians and Bureaucrats: The Myceneans

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The Early Helladic Period, ~2750-2000 BC

   Somewhere between 3000 BC and 2000 BC, the lands of Greece were settled by a metal-using agricultural people who spoke a language other than Indo-European. Some of the names they gave their villages were preserved by the Greeks, names, for instance, ending in "-ssos." We know next to nothing of these people, their religion, their cultural memory, their language, or their everyday experience. The period when they dominated Greece, called the "Early Helladic" period, seemed to be one of comparative quiet and peace. All that ended around 2000 BC; the early Helladic sites and villages were destroyed in fire or abandoned outright. An invader had entered the stage, one that quickly dominated the landscape: the Greek.
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The Middle Helladic Period, ~2000 BC-1550 BC

   This period of conquest and settlement by the Greeks makes up the Middle Helladic period. These new invaders settled all the parts of Greece, in some instances settling peacefully with the previous inhabitants, and began to dominate Greek culture. They spoke an Indo-European language; in fact, they spoke Greek. Their society was primarily based on warfare; their leaders were essentially war-chiefs. They had settled a difficult land: the Greek mainland is hot, dry and rocky. Agriculture is difficult, but some crops grow extremely well, such as grapes and olives. The coastal settlers relied heavily on fishing for their diet. In spite of the ruggedness of their life and the harshness of their social organization, these early Greeks traded with a civilization to the south, the Minoans. Their contact with the Minoans was instantly fruitful; they began to urbanize somewhere in the Middle Helladic period and translated their culture into a civilization.
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The Late Helladic Period, ~1550 BC-1150 BC

   The transition between the Middle and Late Helladic periods is indistinguishable, for the Greek settlers had begun building the rudiments of a civilization earlier in the millenium. Around 1600 BC, though, these urban centers began to thrive and the Greek settlers entered their first major period of cultural creativity. Their cities grew larger, their graves more opulent, their art more common, their agriculture more efficient, and the power of these new warlord cities began to be felt around the Aegean. This period of Greek development and prosperity is called the Late Helladic Period or simply the Mycenean period. The Greeks of this age are the Myceneans proper; for four centuries their culture thrived until it crumbled into the emptiness of history.

   For almost two thousand years, the Myceneans were lost to history except for their central position in Greek literature and mythology. For the Mycenean age found its voice in the poetry of Homer in a single defining event: the Mycenean war against Troy, a city in Asia Minor. But this poetry was regarded as fiction only until an amateur archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann dug up the city of Troy in Turkey and later dug up the Mycenean cities of Mycenae (which gives the age its name) and Tiryns.

   But ruins tell us very little about the Myceneans. What we can tell from their ruined cities, their art, and their records (which we can read), is that the Myceneans derived much of their culture from the Minoans, but with some dramatic differences. Mycenean society was monarchical. The monarch, called a wanax, ruled over a large administration as a kind of head bureaucrat. Unlike the Minoans, though, the Mycenean kings accumulated vast wealth in concentrated form; the rest of society did not share in the prosperity as did the Minoans. The king was also primarily a warlord, and Mycenean society was constantly geared for battle and invasion. Their cities were heavy fortresses with unimaginably thick perimeter walls. While the Minoans surrounded themselves with delicate art of everyday life, Mycenean art was about warfare and hunting. Not only did the Myceneans stay on the defensive, they actively went looking for trouble. There are Hittite records in Asia Minor and the Middle East chronicling Mycenean invasions, and the Egyptians list them among groups of raiders. And, after Minoan civilization had been weakened in a series of earthquakes, the Myceneans conquered Crete and other Aegean civilizations, establishing themselves over the culture that so deeply influenced their own. The most famous of the Mycenean raids, of course, is the war against Troy, a wealthy commercial city on the coast of Asia Minor. This city, according to the archaeological evidence, was totally destroyed by the Myceneans.

   So the Myceneans ranged far and wide looking for all sorts of trouble. They also ranged far and wide as merchants, trading raw goods such as oil and animal skins for jewelry and other goods from Crete, Asia Minor, and Egypt. Some of this commercial activity was not exactly above-board; the Mycenean kings were not above a little piracy or rapine. All of this activity concentrated a great deal of wealth in the hands of the kings and a few officials. Most of the wealth, of course, was spent on warfare and defense; a large part of it, though, went into other activities: crafts, jewelry, and expensive burials. Like most societies dominated by an extremely powerful ruler, the Myceneans spent a great deal of wealth and labor burying that ruler. Initially, the most powerful Myceneans were buried in deep shaft graves, but sometime around 1500 BC, they began burying their most powerful people in tholos tombs, which were large chambers cut into the side of a hill. Like most monumental architecture, their principle purpose was probably a display of power.

   At the very peak of their power, shortly after the destruction of Troy, the Myceneans suddenly disappear from history. Around 1200 BC, the populations of the cities dramatically decrease until they are completely abandoned by 1100 BC. The Greeks believed that the Myceneans were overrun by another Greek-speaking people, the Dorians, and there is some evidence that invasions may have taken place. If that were the case, the Dorians were uninterested in the Mycenean cities but chose to live in small, tribal, agricultural groups. It may be that no invasions took place, but that economic collapse drove people from the cities out into the countryside. Whatever happened, the great Mycenean cities were abandoned to their fates; Greek society once again became a non-urbanized, tribal culture. The Greeks also stopped writing, so the history of this period is lost to us forever; for this reason it's called the "Greek Dark Ages."

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-12-97