Mycenaean civilization

  June 15, 2022   Read time 5 min
Mycenaean civilization
The Mycenaean empire, if the term is permissible, was at its height in the fi fteenth and fourteenth centuries BC . For a while, the weakness of Egypt and the crumbling of the Hittite power favoured it; for a time a small people enriched by trade had disproportionate importance while great powers waned.

Mycenaean colonies were established on the shores of Asia Minor; trade with other Asian towns, notably Troy at the entrance to the Black Sea, prospered. But there are some signs of fl agging from about 1300 BC . War seems to have been one answer; Achaeans took important parts in attacks on Egypt at the end of the century and it now seems that a great raid by them, which was immortalized as the Siege of Troy, took place about 1200 BC . The troubled background to these events was a series of dynastic upheavals in the Mycenaean cities themselves. What can be called the Dark Ages of the Aegean were about to close in and they are as obscure as what was happening in the Middle East at about the same time.

When Troy fell, new barbarian invasions of mainland Greece had already begun. At the very end of the thirteenth century some of the great Mycenaean centres were destroyed, perhaps by earthquakes or by invasions, and the fi rst Greece broke up into disconnected settlements. As an entity Mycenaean civilization collapsed, but not all the Mycenaean sites were abandoned, at least not in full. Around 1000 BCsome form of revival seems to emerge. Legendary accounts of this attribute much to one particular group among the newcomers, the Dorians. Vigorous and bold, they were to be remembered as the descendants of Heracles. Though it is very dangerous to argue back from the presence of later Greek dialects to identifi able and compact groups of early invaders, tradition makes them the speakers of a tongue, Doric, which lived on into the classical age as a dialect setting them apart. In this case, tradition has been thought by scholars to be justifi ed. In Sparta and Argos, Dorian communities, which would be future city-states, established themselves.

But other peoples also helped to crystallize a new civilization in this obscure period. The most successful were those later identified as speakers of ‘Ionic’ Greek, the Ionians of the Dark Age. Setting out from Attica (where Athens had either survived or assimilated the invaders who followed Mycenae), they took root in the Cyclades and Ionia, the present Turkish coast of the Aegean. Here, as migrants and pirates, they seized or founded towns, if not on islands, almost always on or near the coast, which were the future city-states of a seafaring people. Often the sites they chose had already been occupied by the Mycenaeans. Sometimes – at Smyrna, for example – they displaced earlier Greek settlers.

This is a confusing picture at best and for much of it there is only fragmentary evidence. Yet from this turmoil there would slowly re-emerge the unity of civilization enjoyed by the Bronze Age Aegean. At fi rst, though, there were centuries of disruption and particularism, a new period of provincialism in a once cosmopolitan world. Trade fl agged, and ties with Asia languished. What replaced them was the physical transference of people, sometimes taking centuries to establish new settled patterns, but in the end setting out the ground plan of a future Greek world.

Immediately, there was a colossal setback in civilized life which should remind us how fragile it could be in ancient times. Its most obvious sign was a depopulation between 1100and 1000 BCso widespread and violent that some scholars have sought explanations in a sudden cataclysm – plague, perhaps, or a climatic change such as might have suddenly and terribly reduced the small cultivable area of the Balkan and Aegean hillsides. Whatever the cause, the effects are to be seen also in a waning of elegance and skill; the carving of hard gems, the painting of frescoes and the making of fi ne pottery all come to a stop. Such cultural continuity as the age permitted must have been largely mental, a matter of songs, myths and religious ideas.

Of this troubled time a very little is dimly and remotely refl ected in the bardic epics later set down in writing in the Iliad and the Odyssey. They include material transmitted for generations by recitation, whose origins lie in tradition near-contemporary with the events they purport to describe, though later attributed to one poet, Homer. Exactly what is reflected is much harder to agree about; the consensus has recently been that it is hardly anything for Mycenaean times, and little more for what immediately followed them. The central episode of the Iliad, the attack on Troy, is not what matters here, though the account probably refl ects a real preponderance of Achaean initiative in the settlement of Asia Minor. What survives is a little social and conceptual information carried incidentally by the poems. Though Homer gives an impression of some special pre-eminence enjoyed by the Mycenaean king, this is information about the postMycenaean Aegean of the eighth century BC , when recovery from the Dark Ages begins. It reveals a society whose assumptions are those of barbarian warlords rather than those of rulers commanding regular armies or supervising bureaucracies like those of Asia. Homer’s kings are the greatest of great nobles, the heads of large households, their acknowledged authority tempered by the real power of truculent near-equals and measured by their ability to impose themselves; their lives are troubled and exacting. The poems only fi tfully illuminate a primitive society, still in confusion, settling down perhaps, but neither so advanced as Mycenae had been, nor even dimly foreshadowing what Greece was to become.

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