History of the Mycenaean civilization

myceanean-civilizationIn mainland Greece during the Late Bronze Age (1600-1100 BC) the first great Greek civilization took shape and developed. It has been conventionally called Mycenaean by researchers, because its most important center was Mycenae, as mentioned in the Homeric epics.

This civilization was the creation of Greek races, known by various names from the sources: Achaeans, Danaans, Ionians, Argives, etc. These Greek tribes, after consolidating their establishments on the mainland, accepted the influences of the other Aegean cultures, especially the Minoan. Then they spread to the Aegean area, the islands, Crete and the coasts of Asia Minor.

During the period of great prosperity they went beyond the borders of the Aegean and settled, sometimes permanently and sometimes occasionally, in Cyprus and on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

The most important centers of the Mycenaean world were Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns in the Argolis, Pylos in Messinia, Amykles in Laconia, Orchomenos, Thebes and Glas in Boeotia, Athens, Eleusis, Marathon in Attica and Iolkos in Thessaly. Most centers were established in selected locations which facilitated the supervision of a large area. Their establishment was combined in most cases with the construction of a palace and a strong fortification.


homerWe had the first information about the Mycenaean world from the Homeric epics. Until the last century, however, historians and researchers believed that the characters and in general the image of life presented in the epics were creations of Homer‘s imagination.

His stories acquired historical significance when a rich merchant, Heinrich Schliemann, made the first excavations in Mycenae (1876). Since then and until today, archaeological research in many parts of Greece and the study of their findings have shed much light on the knowledge of this era.

The culmination of all research concerning the Mycenaean art and culture was the decipherment of the Linear B script by M. Ventris and J. Chadwick (1952). Linear B’ was used by skilled scribes in Mycenaean palaces. The reading of the tablets found at Pylos, Knossos, Mycenae and Thebes showed that Linear B is a syllabic script. But the most important thing is that it validated the Greekness of the Mycenaean culture.

Turned out that its symbols represent words of the Greek language. They actually attribute to an early form of the Greek language, even older than that of the Homeric epics. The information, however, that the signs give us has an accounting content, i.e. lists of objects and assets of rulers or merchants of that time. Names of gods and people known to us from the epics have also been read.
It must be pointed out that until today the signs have not given us a continuous text.
Historical science includes the Mycenaean civilization partly in Greek prehistory or, to be precise, considers it to constitute Greek protohistory.

Research activity

Economic, social and political organization of the Mycenaean world. The closed agricultural economy of the settlements of the Middle Bronze Age was apparently followed by a form of economic relations based on trade. Commercial development, especially after 1500 BC, followed a rapid pace and resulted in the departure of the Mycenaeans to the Aegean. A series of palaces, built on fortified citadels, attest to the economic development of the Mycenaean world.

Εconomic activities

The center of economic activities were the palaces. The majority of the citizens were engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. A large group consisted of skilled craftsmen (ceramists, carpenters, shipbuilders, coppersmiths, goldsmiths, perfumers, doctors, etc.) and another, also numerous, merchants and sailors.

Social hierarchy

mycaenean-kingIn the social hierarchy, the priests and the army, which consisted of professional soldiers, had a special place. The ruler of each palace managed the wealth of the area he ruled. He was a political and military leader, with judicial and at the same time religious authority. There is no indication, however, that implies the existence of a theocratic organization and a powerful priesthood.

At the base of the social pyramid were the slaves. They were servants who worked for the ruler, officials, priests and ordinary citizens.
The common characteristics presented by the Mycenaean world throughout the area of its spread and which confirm its cultural cohesion would be an indicative element for the organization of a single state.

But it seems that this did not happen. It has been suggested that the country must have been divided into four or five larger and about as many smaller “federal” states, corresponding to the great palaces. It is possible that the individual Mycenaean states were subordinate to the larger palace center, Mycenae.

The Mycenaean state

We do not have sufficient data for the organization of each Mycenaean state, with the exception of the information given by the plaques from the palace of Pylos. Supreme lord, according to the information on the tablets, was the “anakta” , master of the palace from where all power went. Subordinate to him were local lords, district commanders.

The title by which we recognize them on the plaques is laagetas (Ρθλερ οφ τηε πεοπλε). Important persons in the regional administration seem to have been the executors. For the Mycenaeans, the title king was less honorable. This was the name of the head of any group, even the master craftsman of a group of coppersmiths. On the contrary, in the Homeric epics, i.e. the following centuries, the word “king” in the Greek language denotes the supreme ruler.

The expansion of the Mycenaean civilization

The main source of wealth and development of the Mycenaean world was trade, the pursuit of which turned the Mycenaeans to the sea. Until the middle of the 15th c. e.g. a leading role in the Aegean was played by the Cretans – at the end of the same century, however, the Mycenaeans dominated Crete and captured Knossos. They displaced the Cretans from the Aegean and imposed their own maritime rule.

Excavation data proves the existence of Mycenaean establishments or trading posts throughout the Aegean. In the following two centuries, their spread extended beyond the Aegean. The 13th c. e.g. they systematically colonized Cyprus, which belonged to the sphere of influence of the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, contributing to its Hellenization.

They established a Mycenaean settlement in the Phoenician city of Ugarit and expanded their trading activities further south into Palestine and Egypt. Hittite sources also inform us about the spread and power of the Mycenaeans.

Tablets found at Hattusa honorifically refer to the king of the “Ahiyavas,” whom the Hittite king calls brother. It is possible that the Achaeans are behind the Ahiyavas of the tablets. If this is true, then we must accept, as the tablets inform us, that relations between the Achaeans and Hittites were friendly.

However, there were also periods when the Hittite king complained to his brother about the Ahiyava raids in his country. Some Mycenaeans must have been the “Achaivasa” (Achaeans) who, as mentioned in the Egyptian inscriptions, invaded Egypt together with the people of the sea at the beginning of the 12th century. e.g.

It is certain that the Mycenaeans also expanded towards the western Mediterranean. Their products have been found in the Italian peninsula, Sicily, Sardinia and the east coast of Spain. Their sights also turned to the north.

The contacts with the Black Sea, from where they procured raw materials and especially metals, connect them with the famous Trojan campaign. It is possible that with this war the Achaeans sought to control the straits of the Hellespont. Ancient Greek tradition dated the campaign to 1184 BC.