How Did the Mycenaeans Influence Classical Greece?

The Lion Gate of the Ancient City of Mycenae

The era of ancient Greek culture generally known as the “classical” period, which roughly encompassed the sixth through fourth centuries BC, was when many of the hallmarks of Hellenic Civilization, including art, philosophy, and commerce were first produced. Those ideas were passed on into the Hellenistic Period and later picked up by the Romans to create a continuous line of cultural innovation that bound the various Greek city-states and later the Romans into a single civilization, often known as Greco-Roman or Hellenic Civilization. Although Rome would later collapse and most of Hellenic Civilization along with it ushering in the “Dark Ages” of Europe, when that period passed medieval Europeans rediscovered many of the classical Greek ideas, which would influence both early and modern Western Civilization. But long before any Greek philosophers contemplated the nature of the universe, there was a thriving Bronze Age civilization in Greece that influenced classical Greece the same way that the classical Greeks influenced Rome and medieval Europe.

Bronze Age Greece was dominated by two cultures – the Minoans and Mycenaeans – who collectively comprised what many modern historians identify as “Aegean Civilization.” The Minoans, who were based on the island of Crete, represented the early phase of Aegean Civilization, while the more warlike Mycenaeans came to dominate the region in the Late Bronze Age. From about 1500 BC until the collapse of the Bronze Age after 1200 BC, the Mycenaeans left their mark in the Aegean by building numerous walled cities, conducting long-distance trade with other cultures, and by engaging in extensive warfare with each other and other peoples. When the Bronze Age system collapsed so too did the Mycenaean culture, but when classical Greek culture emerged several hundred years later it was clearly influenced by the Mycenaeans, especially in terms of language, religion, and economics.

Background of the Mycenaeans

Map of Mycenaean Culture

Modern archaeologists and philologists have been able to identify the cultural and linguistic origins of the Mycenaeans as Indo-Europeans, similar to their contemporaries the Hittites and the ancient ancestors of most modern Europeans. The ancestors of the Mycenaeans split off from the Indo-European homeland north of the Caucasus Mountains and began a long trek west and southward until they entered Greece around 2,200 BC. Once in Greece, they quickly established their martial reputation by attacking, pillaging, and displacing other peoples’ settlements as they moved further south. [1]

Around 1500 BC the Mycenaeans built the first cities in continental Europe. Today, the ancient Mycenaean cities are known by their classical Greek names because it is unknown what the Mycenaean names were. In fact, even the name “Mycenaean” is a modern convention that has been applied to the entire Bronze Age Greek culture, although more specifically it refers to the Greek Bronze Age city of Mycenae, which was rebuilt during the classical period. The three largest and best known of the Mycenaean cities were Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos, with the latter probably being the most important. Mycenaean cities were markedly different than classical Greek cities in that temples were practically nonexistent and they were instead dominated by large circular tombs and heavily fortified walls in terms of architecture. [2] Although the classical Greeks may not have been influenced by Mycenaean architectural styles, there were plenty of other elements of Mycenaean culture that the later Greeks adopted.

Mycenaean Language and Writing

Besides building the first cities in Europe, the Mycenaeans, along with the Minoans, were the first people to develop a written script in Europe. The Mycenaeans’ writing system, known today as Linear B script, was influenced by the slightly older Linear A script of the Minoans. Although first rediscovered in the nineteenth century, it was not deciphered until 1952 by Englishman Michael Ventris, who determined that the actual language was an early form of Greek. [3] Later studies of Aegean culture demonstrated that the Linear A script was used from about 1600 until 1450 BC on Crete, while Linear B surpassed the earlier form of writing after 1450 on Crete and from approximately 1400 until 1200 BC on mainland Greece. [4]

After the Bronze Age collapse, which began around 1200 BC, Linear B script fell quickly out of use and writing would not reemerge in Greece until the classical period several hundred years later. The form of writing that the classical Greeks used was based on the Phoenician alphabet, but the idea of writing that was initiated by the Minoans and Mycenaeans may have lingered on during ancient Greece’s archaic period. And although the Mycenaeans may not have directly imparted their knowledge of writing to the classical Greeks, the language that such great classical Greek orators and philosophers spoke was essentially the same as the Mycenaeans.

The Mycenaeans and Classical Greek Religion

The ruins of Pylos have provided modern scholars with the single largest cache of Linear B tablets, many of which are related to early Aegean religion. The tablets show that like many of their contemporaries in the Bronze Age Near East, the Mycenaeans practiced a ritual based religion that was led by a sizable priest class who owned land and probably exercised a considerable amount of political power. [5] The influence that the Mycenaeans imparted on later classical Greek religion is not so apparent in terms of the ritual aspects of their religion, but more so with the actual pantheon.

The Pylos tablets show that the Mycenaeans worshipped Zeus, who of course was at the head of the classical Greek pantheon, while Poseidon also played a key role according to tablets from both Pylos and the Cretan city of Knossos. [6] Although the classical Greeks may have worshipped in a different manner than their Mycenaean ancestors, the Linear B tablets show that they followed the same deities. Other evidence also suggests that Mycenaean funerary games were the inspiration for the well-known sporting culture of the classical Greeks.

As mentioned above, the largest architectural structures the Mycenaeans built were the large, circular tholos tombs where their kings were interred. Some modern scholars have suggested that the tombs served not only as the final resting place of Mycenaean kings, but also as the grounds where elaborate funerary games were held in honor of the deceased. [7] Although the Linear B tablets are silent on this subject and the archaeological evidence is sparse at best, many modern scholars point to Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad as evidence of the Mycenaean sporting tradition. Despite living centuries after the Mycenaean period, Homer’s epic was about events that took place in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and can be considered a primary source of Mycenaean culture, within reason.

In Book 23, the Mycenaeans/Greeks held eight sporting events – a chariot race, boxing, wrestling, a foot race, armed combat, an iron toss, archery, and a javelin toss – to memorialize the life and death of the hero Patroclus. Some of the events were no doubt anachronistic – it would have been impossible to have an iron toss during the Bronze Age – but it is believed that the Mycenaeans probably participated in most of the games, although with some slight differences. For instance, the Mycenaean funerary games were done clothed, unlike the later classical Greeks who competed in the nude. [8] The focus of the Bronze Age events was also apparently more so on the spirit of competition than the defeat of an opponent or prizes. Homer’s account of the wrestling event demonstrates this point:

“Both champions, belted tight, stepped into the ring and grappling each other hard with big burly arms, locked like rafters a master builder bolts together, slanting into a pitched roof to fight the ripping winds. . . No more struggling – don’t kill yourselves in sport! Victory goes to both. Share the prizes. Off you go, so the rest of the men can have a crack at contests.” [9]

Although the context in which the classical Greeks performed their sports was different than that of the Mycenaeans, the idea of athletic competition and physical fitness originated with their Bronze Age ancestors.

Mycenaean Economics

Fresco of a Noble Mycenaean Woman: ca. 1300 BC

The classical Greeks were known throughout the world, and today, just as much for their merchant and trade activities as they were for their martial abilities. They traded with other non-Greek peoples throughout the Mediterranean, much like their Mycenaean ancestors did hundreds of years prior. The Mycenaeans were able to take land by force in the Aegean region, but they eventually expanded their influence directly to Anatolia and Egypt through trade, incorporating their culture into the Bronze Age system from about 1400 BC until its collapse around the year 1200 BC.

The Mycenaeans first built their trade networks within Greece by constructing the first roads in Europe to bring wheat from Thessaly and oil from Attica to the primary Mycenaean cities of Mycenae, Pylos, and Tiryns on the Peloponnese peninsula. [10] Once the Mycenaeans developed extensive trade routes within the Aegean region, they established long-distance routes throughout the Mediterranean basin. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Mycenaeans imported more foreign goods than they exported: metal from Cyprus and Anatolia was imported to make weapons while grain was imported from the Black Sea and Egypt. [11] Although the Mycenaeans exported far fewer goods, their vases were in high demand in a number of Bronze Age kingdoms, especially Egypt. During the reign of the Egyptian King Akhenaten (ruled ca. 1364-1347 BC), the Mycenaeans exported the highest number of vases and other goods to Egypt, which demonstrates that Mycenaeans played a vital role in the Late Bronze Age economic system. [12] The ever industrious and economically inclined classical Greeks no doubt inherited some of these traits from their Mycenaean ancestors.

Conclusion

The classical Greeks are rightfully remembered today for being cultural torch bearers who brought civilization to Europe after the collapse of the Bronze Age system. Unfortunately, often overlooked and even forgotten are the classical Greeks’ Bronze Age ancestors, the Mycenaeans, who were part of one of the most impressive and vibrant civilizations of the Bronze Age. The Mycenaeans’ profound influence on the classical Greeks can be seen in their language, religion, sporting culture, and economics.

References

  1. Samuel, Alan E. The Mycenaeans in History. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966), p. 37
  2. Preziosi, Donald and Louise A. Hitchcock. Aegean Art and Architecture. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 156
  3. Preziosi and Hitchcok, pgs. 158-9
  4. Chadwick, John. Documents in Mycenaean Greece. 2nd Edition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 28
  5. Chadwick, pgs. 125-8
  6. Chadwick, pgs. 125-6
  7. Kyle, Donald G. Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. (London: Blackwell, 2007), p. 50
  8. Kyle, p. 61
  9. Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. (London: Penguin, 1998), 23, 780-820
  10. Samuel, p. 103
  11. Vermeule, Emily Townsend. “The Fall of the Mycenaean Empire.” Archaeology 13 (1960) p. 66
  12. Samuel, p. 110