Athens in the Mycenaean Age

The Mycenaean Age is one of the oldest periods of known Greek history. The final phase of the Bronze Age, the Mycenaean period runs roughly from 1600 BC to 1100 BC. This historical period is the subject of more speculation than many of the periods that preceded it, largely because it is the setting of much ancient Greek literature, including the epic tales of Homer.

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During the Mycenaean age, the Achaeans begin to truly develop their own cultural sophistication. They retain some of the traditions and influences that came during the Minoan period, which originated under the Minoan Cretes. In many ways, the Mycenaean age is a synthesis of the Minoan civilization and home-grown Achaean civilization.

Mycenaean cities were built centered around the royal palace, both literally and figuratively. The palaces of this age were not likely as sophisticated as later palaces. They likely considered of a great hall and a forecourt, as can be seen at palaces located in Pylos, Tiryns and Mycenae. It’s likely that a palace existed on the Acropolis at this time, although there is little surviving evidence in Athens to suggest what such a palace might have looked like.

During the Mycenaean age, a syllabic script known as Linear B, the successor to Linear A, was used. This script put Greek into writing, and it is this script that reveals much of what we know about the time period.

Events

Without recorded histories, it’s difficult to piece together the events that occurred during the Mycenaean Age. Still, we can pull together some events based on the archaeological and historical data.

Around 1370, the palace at Knossos was destroyed. The “Sea People” began raiding the Eastern Mediterranean around 1300, although some scholars put this date as late as 1100 BC. The Doric invasions and the destruction of many Mycenaean palaces took place from about 1200 to 1100.

Tucked into the Mycenaean age is the last great event of the Bronze Age: the Trojan War. This war was real, regardless of what mythology may have grown up around it. The tale of this war was passed along in an oral tradition, from one bard to the next. It survived in the form we know it when it was written down by the blind poet, Homer.

Athens, in particular, likely had only a small and passing role in the Trojan War. They were led by their king, Menestheus, according to Homer. Their relative unimportance to Homer’s tale suggests that Athens had yet to play a major role in civilization, although the next few centuries would see that change dramatically.

Characters

Little is known of Mycenaean figures, beyond names and legends. If Homer is to be followed, of course, Agamemnon, Achilles and the other epic Greek heroes made their way during this period, but that obviously remains speculative.

Archaeologists have been able to provide some information about the Mycenaean kings of Athens. The founder of the royal line is said to be Kekrops, who is said to have picked the site for Athens and dedicated the city and its title to the goddess Athena. This is something of a matter of debate, as there are scholars who believe that the goddess may derive her name from the city, rather than the other way around. Other nobles and kings of the Mycenaean age include Aegus, Erechtheos, Εrichthοniοs, Kodros, Pandion, and Theseus. Like the Arthurian legends of England, there are hosts of tales of the early Athenian kings.

In terms of the social structure of the Mycenaean age, it’s most likely that society was a tiered system. At the top was the king, supported by his military leaders. Priests and bureaucrats held rank in the city, and kept records of trade and production. The lower rungs of the social strata included artisans, soldiers, peasants, serfs and slaves.

One clue to the societal divisions can be found in the various goods buried in peoples’ graves. Military graves would include weapons and armaments, while artisan graves might include their crafts.

Landscape

Athens figures into this period of Greek history as a participant, rather than as a leader of Greek culture. The period gets its name from the city of Mycenae, which is located in the Peloponnese in southern Greece. That city holds the remains of a Mycenaean palace. Other significant sites in Mycenaean Greece include Pylos, Tiryns and Thebes.

The Mycenaean Age also featured one of the early Athenian port, that of Phaleron. This port precedes Piraeus, and is likely the port through which most Athenian trade took place.

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