- NEOLITHIC TO MIDDLE BRONZE AGE
Mycenae, an acropolis site, was continuously inhabited from the Early Neolithic (EN) down through the Early Helladic (EH) and Middle Helladic (MH) periods; EN Rainbow Ware constitutes the earliest ceramic evidence discovered so far. Pottery material spanning the entire EHI through EHIII period was discovered in 1877–1878 by Stamatakis at a low depth in the sixth shaft grave in Grave Circle A; further EH and MH material was found beneath the walls and floors of the palace, on the summit of the acropolis, and outside the Lion Gate in the area of the ancient cemetery. An EH–MH settlement was discovered near a fresh-water well on top of the Kalkani hill southwest of the acropolis. The first burials in pits or cist graves manifest in the MH period (circa 1800–1700 BC) on the west slope of the acropolis, which was at least partially enclosed by the earliest circuit wall.
During the Bronze Age, the pattern of settlement at Mycenae was a fortified hill surrounded by hamlets and estates, in contrast to the dense urbanity on the coast (cf. Argos). Since Mycenae was the capital of a state that ruled, or dominated, much of the eastern Mediterranean world, the rulers must have placed their stronghold in this less populated and more remote region for its defensive value. Since there are few documents on site with datable contents (such as an Egyptian scarab) and since no dendrochronology has yet been performed upon the remains here, the events are listed here according to Helladic period material culture.
Outside the partial circuit wall, Grave Circle B, named for its enclosing wall, contained ten cist graves in Middle Helladic style and several shaft graves, sunk more deeply, with interments resting in cists. Richer grave goods mark the burials as possibly regal. Mounds over the top contained broken drinking vessels and bones from a repast, testifying to a more than ordinary farewell. Stelae surmounted the mounds.
A walled enclosure, Grave Circle A, included six more shaft graves, with nine female, eight male, and two juvenile interments. Grave goods were more costly than in Circle B. The presence of engraved and inlaid swords and daggers, with spear points and arrowheads, leave little doubt that warrior chieftains and their families were buried here. Some art objects obtained from the graves are the Silver Siege Rhyton, the Mask of Agamemnon, the Cup of Nestor, and weapons both votive and practical.
Alan Wace divided the nine tholos tombs of Mycenae into three groups of three, each based on architecture. His earliest – the Cyclopean Tomb, Epano Phournos, and the Tomb of Aegisthus – are dated to LHIIA.Burial in tholoi is seen as replacing burial in shaft graves. The care taken to preserve the shaft graves testifies that they were by then part of the royal heritage, the tombs of the ancestral heroes. Being more visible, the tholoi all had been plundered either in antiquity, or in later historic times.
At a conventional date of 1350 BC, the fortifications on the acropolis, and other surrounding hills, were rebuilt in a style known as cyclopean because the blocks of stone used were so massive that they were thought in later ages to be the work of the one-eyed giants known as the Cyclopes (singular: Cyclops). Within these walls, much of which can still be seen, successive monumental palaces were built. The final palace, remains of which are currently visible on the acropolis of Mycenae, dates to the start of LHIIIA:2. Earlier palaces must have existed, but they had been cleared away or built over.
The construction of palaces at that time with a similar architecture was general throughout southern Greece. They all featured a megaron, or throne room, with a raised central hearth under an opening in the roof, which was supported by four columns in a square around the hearth. A throne was placed against the center of a wall to the side of the hearth, allowing an unobstructed view of the ruler from the entrance. Frescos adorned the plaster walls and floor.
The room was accessed from a courtyard with a columned portico. A grand staircase led from a terrace below to the courtyard on the acropolis.
In the temple built within the citadel, a scarab of Queen Tiye of Egypt, who was married to Amenhotep III, was placed in the Room of the Idols alongside at least one statue of either LHIIIA:2 or B:1 type. Amenhotep III's relations with m-w-k-i-n-u, *Mukana, have corroboration from the inscription at Kom al-Hetan - but Amenhotep's reign is thought to align with late LHIIIA:1. It is likely that Amenhotep's herald presented the scarab to an earlier generation, which then found the resources to rebuild the citadel as Cyclopean and then, to move the scarab here.
Wace’s second group of tholoi are dated between LHIIA and LHIIIB: Kato Phournos, Panagia Tholos, and the Lion Tomb. The final group, Group III: the Treasury of Atreus, the Tomb of Clytemnestra and the Tomb of the Genii, are dated to LHIIIB by a sherd under the threshold of the Treasury of Atreus, the largest of the nine tombs. Like the Treasury of Minyas at Orchomenus the tomb had been looted of its contents and its nature as funerary monument had been forgotten. The structure bore the traditional name of "Treasury".
The pottery phases on which the relative dating scheme is based (EH, MH, LH, etc.) do not allow very precise dating, even augmented by the few existing C-14 dates due to the tolerance inherent in these. The sequence of further construction at Mycenae is approximately as follows. In the middle of LHIIIB, around 1250 BC or so, the Cyclopean wall was extended on the west slope to include Grave Circle A. The main entrance through the circuit wall was made grand by the best known feature of Mycenae, the Lion Gate, through which passed a stepped ramp leading past circle A and up to the palace. The Lion Gate was constructed in the form of a "Relieving Triangle" in order to support the weight of the stones. An undecorated postern gate also was constructed through the north wall.
One of the few groups of excavated houses in the city outside the walls lies beyond Grave Circle B and belongs to the same period. The House of Shields, the House of the Oil Merchant, the House of the Sphinxes, and the West House. These may have been both residences and workshops.
By 1200 BC, the power of Mycenae was declining; finally, during the 12th century BC, Mycenaean dominance collapsed entirely. The eventual destruction of Mycenae formed part of the general Bronze Age collapse in the Greek mainland and beyond. Within a short time around 1200 BC, all the palace complexes of southern Greece were burned, including that at Mycenae. This was traditionally attributed by scholars to a Dorian invasion of Greeks from the north, although many historians now doubt that this invasion caused the destruction of the Mycenaean centres. Displaced populations escaped to former colonies of the Mycenaeans in Anatolia and elsewhere, where they came to speak the Ionic dialect.
Emily Vermeule suggests that the disruption of commercial networks at the end of the 13th century BC, was disastrous for Greece and this was followed by the coming of the mysterious "Sea Peoples", who caused chaos in the Aegean. According to Egyptian records, the "Sea Peoples" destroyed the Hittite Empire then attacked the 19th and the 20th dynasties of Egypt, (circa 1300–1164). They may be related with the destruction of the Mycenaean centers (the records of Pylos mention sea-attack). However at the end of LHIIIB period, the Mycenaeans undertook an expedition against Troy, which meant that the sea was safe with no indication of destruction in the Aegean islands.
Another theory has drought as the primary cause behind the Mycenaean decline, but there is no climatological evidence to support this. Manolis Andronikos claimed that internal conflicts involving social revolutions were the sole cause behind the destruction of Mycenaean sites, but this is contradicted by the fact that all the Mycenaean centers throughout Greece were destroyed almost simultaneously. George E. Mylonas noticed that after 1200 BC, some attempt was made for recovery in Mycenae. He believes that in the Argolid there was internal fighting, and this was followed by the Dorian invasion. It seems that the Dorians moved southward gradually in small clans, until they managed to establish themselves.
Amos Nur argues that earthquakes played a major role in the destruction of Mycenae and many other cities at the end of the Bronze Age. However, no conclusive evidence has been brought forward to confirm any theory of why the Mycenaean citadel and others throughout Greece fell almost simultaneously at this time.
Whatever the cause, by the LHIIIC period (whose latest phase is also termed "Submycenaean"), Mycenae was no longer a major power. Pottery and decorative styles were changing rapidly with craftsmanship and fine art undergoing a decline. Although settlements were significantly reduced in size, the citadel remained occupied but never regained its earlier importance.
- ARCHAIC AND CLASSICAL PERIOD
A temple dedicated to Hera was built on the summit of the Mycenaean citadel during the Archaic Period. A Mycenaean contingent fought at Thermopylae and Plataea during the Persian Wars. In 468 BC, however, troops from Argos captured Mycenae, expelled the inhabitants and razed the fortifications.
Mycenae was briefly reoccupied in the Hellenistic period, when it could boast a theatre (located over the Tomb of Clytemnestra). The site was subsequently abandoned, and by the Roman period in Greece its ruins had become a tourist attraction. The ancient travel writer Pausanias, for example, visited the site and briefly described the prominent fortifications and the Lion Gate, still visible in his time.
Classical Greek myths assert that Mycenae was founded by Perseus, grandson of king Acrisius of Argos, son of Acrisius's daughter, Danaë and the god Zeus. Having killed his grandfather by accident, Perseus could not, or would not, inherit the throne of Argos. Instead he arranged an exchange of realms with his cousin, Megapenthes, and became king of Tiryns, Megapenthes taking Argos. From there, he founded Mycenae and ruled the kingdoms jointly from Mycenae.
Perseus married Andromeda and had many sons, but in the course of time, went to war with Argos and was slain by Megapenthes. His son, Electryon, became the second of the dynasty, but the succession was disputed by the Taphians under Pterelaos, another Perseid, who assaulted Mycenae, lost, and retreated with the cattle. The cattle were recovered by Amphitryon, a grandson of Perseus, but he killed his uncle by accident with a club in an unruly cattle incident and had to go into exile.
The throne went to Sthenelus, third in the dynasty, a son of Perseus. He set the stage for future greatness by marrying Nicippe, a daughter of King Pelops of Elis, the most powerful state of the region and the times. With her he had a son, Eurystheus, the fourth and last of the Perseid dynasty. When a son of Heracles, Hyllus, killed Sthenelus, Eurystheus became noted for his enmity to Heracles and for his ruthless persecution of the Heracleidae, the descendants of Heracles.
This is the first we hear in legend of those noted sons, who became a symbol of the Dorians. Heracles had been a Perseid. After his death, Eurystheus determined to annihilate these rivals for the throne of Mycenae, but they took refuge in Athens, and in the course of war, Eurystheus and all his sons were killed. The Perseid dynasty came to an end and the people of Mycenae placed Eurystheus's maternal uncle, Atreus, a Pelopid, on the throne.
The people of Mycenae had received advice from an oracle that they should choose a new king from among the Pelopids. The two contenders were Atreus and his brother, Thyestes. The latter was chosen at first. At this moment nature intervened and the sun appeared to reverse direction by setting in the east. Atreus argued that because the sun had reversed its path, the election of Thyestes should be reversed. The argument was heeded, and Atreus became king. His first move was to pursue Thyestes and all his family - that is, his own kin - but Thyestes managed to escape from Mycenae.
In legend, Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, the Atreids. Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, killed Atreus and restored Thyestes to the throne. With the help of King Tyndareus of Sparta, the Atreids drove Thyestes again into exile. Tyndareus had two ill-starred daughters, Helen and Clytemnestra, whom Menelaus and Agamemnon married, respectively. Agamemnon inherited Mycenae and Menelaus became king of Sparta.
Soon, Helen eloped with Paris of Troy. Agamemnon conducted a 10-year war against Troy to get her back for his brother. Because of lack of wind, the warships could not sail to Troy. In order to please the gods so that they might make the winds start to blow, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. According to some versions of the legend, the hunting goddess Artemis replaced her at the very last moment with a deer on the altar, and took Iphigenia to Tauris (see Iphigenia by Euripides). The deities, having been satisfied by such a sacrifice, made the winds blow and the Greek fleet departed.
Legend tells us that the long and arduous Trojan War, although nominally a Greek victory, brought anarchy, piracy, and ruin; already before the Greek fleet set sail for Troy, the conflict had divided the gods as well, and this contributed to curses and acts of vengeance following many of the Greek heroes. After the war, Agamemnon, returning, was greeted royally with a red carpet rolled out for him and then was slain in his bathtub by Clytemnestra, who hated him bitterly for having ordered the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia (although the life of the latter had been saved). Clytemnestra was aided in her crime by Aegistheus, who reigned subsequently, but Orestes, son of Agamemnon, was smuggled out to Phocis. He returned as an adult to slay Clytemnestra and Aegistheus. He then fled to Athens to evade justice and a matricide, and became insane for a time. Meanwhile, the throne of Mycenae went to Aletes, son of Aegistheus, but not for long. Recovering, Orestes returned to Mycenae to kill him and take the throne.
Orestes then built a larger state in the Peloponnese, but he died in Arcadia from a snake bite. His son, Tisamenus, the last of the Atreid dynasty, was killed by the Heracleidae on their return to the Peloponnesus. They claimed the right of the Perseids to inherit the various kingdoms of the Peloponnese and cast lots for the dominion of them. Whatever the historical realities reflected in these stories, the Atreids are firmly set in the epoch near the end of the Heroic Age, leading up to the arrival of the Dorians. There are no established stories of a royal house at Mycenae later than the Atreids, and this could reflect the fact that not much more than fifty or sixty years seem to have separated the fall of Troy VIIa (the likely inspiration of Homeric Troy) and the fall of Mycenae.