Strategically located between two Peloponnese hills in southern Greece, the fortified site of Mycenae has entered collective consciousness mainly due to its mention in Homer’s the Illiad and the Odyssey which describes Mycenae as the kingdom of the mythical King Agamemnon. Mycenae became a Greek settlement between 1700 and 1200 BC, during the Late Bronze Age, with its monumental architecture being constructed at the pinnacle of the Mycenaean civilization from 1350 BC. During this era, archaeologists hold that it was the wealthiest palatial center in Greece, before being abandoned over 2,000 years ago.
An interpretation from the Odyssey where Odysseys taunts the Cyclops Polyphemus as he escapes the island of the Cyclopes. According to legend Perseus brought the Cyclopes to build the fortified walls at Mycenae. ( Public domain )
Mythology Surrounding Mycenae
According to Greek mythology, Mycenae’s story goes back to the hero Perseus, the demigod son of Zeus and Danae, who was said to have founded the city of Mycenae. Many mythical features are assigned to Perseus within the ancient Greek legends, like the famous winged shoes of Hermes which allowed him to fly and the helmet of Ares (Mars) which could make him invisible.
Perseus’s accomplishments included killing the sea monster sent by the god Poseidon to destroy Aethiopia, thus freeing Andromeda and killing the mythical beast Medusa, whose head could turn anyone looking at it to stone. Is it possible that Perseus did exist? And, if he did, was he truly connected to gods?
Illustration showing Perseus delivering Medusa’s head. ( Public domain )
There are several stories about why the city was named Mycenae. One claims that the city was named by Perseus after his sword’s mykes (a part of the handle of a sword) fell at the site. The name of the city was then given to the Mycenaean civilization which has been remembered as one of the most important civilizations of Greek prehistory.
Greek mythology holds that the descendants of Perseus reigned from Mycenae for three generations, the last in the lineage being Eurystheus, after which Atreus rose to power. Mycenae later became home to the kingdom of Agamemnon, son of Atreus and the legendary commander in chief of the Greek contingent in the Trojan War . Brother to Menelaus the king of Sparta, King Agamemnon was considered to be one of the greatest leaders of his era (not to be confused with the distorted Hollywood portrayal of him in the film Troy).
The Lion’s Gate, main entrance to the ancient city of Mycenae in Greece. ( Haris Andronos / Adobe Stock)
The Architecture and Artifacts of Mycenae
The descriptions of Mycenae in ancient Greek mythology are accurate. Even today, you can still see the walls and be amazed by the huge stones—some weighing up to 120 tons—that comprise them. Known as Cyclopean Walls, legend has it that the walls around the city were so named because Perseus brought the mythical beings Cyclopes—or one-eyed giants—from Asia to construct the large fortified walls using stones no human could lift.
Tiryns, the other great city of the Mycenae civilization, has a similar story where King Proetus—another mythical king—used the Cyclopes to build its fortified walls. In 1999, both Mycenae and Tiryns were together recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites .
Located strategically to afford control of the Argolid Plain, Mycenae was built almost 280 meters (918 ft) above sea level. The city was strong military and financial power, especially in the Bronze Age around 1400 to 1200 BCE when the Gate of Lions was built and new buildings were added in the area. The Lion Gate, the primary entrance to Mycenae, is one of the earliest examples of relief sculpture in ancient Greece, and is a large triangular stone on the top of the entrance to the citadel that depicts two lions.
The golden death-mask known as the Mask of Agamemnon which was found in Tomb V in Grave Circle A at Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876. (Xuan Che / CC BY 2.0 )
In Mycenae you can also find the Treasury of King Atreus, also known as the Tomb of King Agamemnon, a large and glorious dome-shaped tomb, called a tholos in Greek, which is one of nine in the area. At the time, these were the tallest domes on Earth, until the Romans constructed the Great Baths of Baiae over a thousand years later.
The famous golden mask of Agamemnon, an artifact discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876, was found in one of these tombs and is one of the most famous artifacts to have been found all over the world. The purpose of the mask was to cover the face of the dead during burial, though not all archaeologists agree that the mask belonged to Agamemnon.
The archaeologists Heinrich Schliemann and Wilhelm Dörpfeld at the Lion’s Gate, main entrance to the ancient city of Mycenae in Greece. ( Public domain )
Excavating the Mythical City of Mycenae
Having been abandoned for centuries, the archaeological site of Mycenae became part of the jurisdiction of the Greek Archaeological Society in 1837. At this point, the first ever excavations were conducted by the Greek archaeologist Kyriakos PIttakis in 1841, who is known for having uncovered the famed Lion Gate.
In 1874 Heinrich Schliemann began his excavations at the mythical site, during which he unearthed the graves in what has come to be known as Grave Circle A, a funerary enclosure containing shaft graves used for Mycenaean elite. It is worth mentioning that Schliemann also discovered Troy and helped academia to realize that Troy was not a myth. Schliemann—even before his discoveries—was convinced that all the stories and legends were not myths but had to be partially true.
Over subsequent decades and up into the 2000s a plethora of archaeologists continued excavations, and in the 1950s the Greek Archaeological Society archaeologist George Mylonas excavated Grave Circle B as well as other sites. There are many elements still buried underground. Those interested in learning more can visit either the Mycenae Museum next to the Mycenae citadel or the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, which is home to many of the artifacts that have been uncovered such as gold objects discovered within burials.
Studies have concluded that the area was occupied as far back as the 7th century BC and was reoccupied by different settlements afterwards. The monumental construction of the Mycenaeans took place later some time between 1350 and 1200 BC, with the city walls dating back to about 1350 BC. The decline of the Mycenaean civilization began around 1200 BC, and the city itself was abandoned about 100 years later. While there are many theories for its demise, experts are still unclear as to what happened.
Grave Circle A, at Mycenae in Greece. (Andy Montgomery / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Mycenae is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. It can be reached from Athens in about two hours, and is located near to Nafplio. Touring the site takes anywhere from two hours. Once there it’s important to visit the Archaeological Museum where you can view many of the artifacts which have been excavated at the site. You can find more information about entry prices, tickets and opening hours at the Ministry of Culture and Sports .
Top image: Mycenae, near Nafplio in Greece, in the north-eastern Peloponnese. Source: Irina Rogova / Adobe Stock
By John Black