Palaces and Tombs of Warrior Kings


Mycenae, rich in gold.


The warm wind strikes you first, a sweet, soft warmth that rolls down from the dark limestone mountains of the Arachneion range and out towards the flat, fertile Argolid plain. The position here is perfect, your back protected and with access below to a network of paths and waterways linking the heartland of the civilization we name ‘Mycenaean’ to North Africa, Asia Minor and western Europe. The Bronze Age city of Mycenae was, from 1400 to 1100 BC, a bold experiment in the manipulation of the natural world and people power. All raw materials and edible resources from Mycenaean territory were brought into the mighty city and then redistributed back to its subjects: figs, flax, olives, grain, cumin, coriander, honey, milk, meat. The Linear B tablets, originally disposable clay lists, baked accidentally in palatial fires and hence surviving to give us brilliant details of life in this region, describe a strictly hierarchical society where both men and women enjoy pole position. The king or wanax and queen or wanassa rule over aristocrat-warriors, high-priests and priestesses; at the bottom of the pyramid crouch a huge phalanx of do-e-ra and do-e-ro – female and male servants or slaves.

The citadel of Mycenae: splendid proof of the tight relationship between geography and history. The Peloponnese gave rise to many of Greece’s most tenacious epics and myths.

Ira Block/National Geographic Creative.

Mycenae was itself a human hive, with chambers of interconnecting activity protecting the centre. Although Hollywood chooses to portray all ancient and prehistoric Greece in a tasteful monochrome of bleached marble, Mycenae would have been a riot of colour. Many of the buildings in the citadel were two or three storeys high, built of wooden columns and mud brick. Walls covered with lime plaster were stained with pigments – salmon-pink, sea-blue, yellow-ochre. The beating heart of the palace, the megaron, the throne room – with access vigorously restricted to a privileged few – would have been richly decorated with narrative frescoes (using both buon secco and fresco secco techniques). There were multi-coloured marble blocks on the floor, lapis lazuli on the columns. One record from Pylos describes a throne made of rock crystal, decorated with ‘faux’ emeralds and precious metals.

And then there were the women. Fierce creatures, who appear in wall-paintings or finely carved ivory miniatures, wearing their hair dressed like the coils of snakes, their eyes kohl-rimmed and, for ceremonial occasions, their breasts bare; bracelets, anklets, earrings, headdresses and chokers all made of fine wire and beaten gold; carnelian necklaces for those thought closest to the gods. Twisting through the corridors on bare feet or in leather sandals, musty with the smell of burnt vegetable and mutton fat from the lamps all around – a shaft of sunlight as they emerged from the walls some 7.5 m (25 ft) thick would reflect back all that gold on the skin, already smoothed with olive oil, as were their linen skirts and bodices, to give skin and faces a honey-sheen. These women could own land and pay taxes – they had disposable income. In the works of Homer we hear that Helen handled a golden spindle, and just such a spindle has been found in a Mycenaean-period grave. Whatever the proportion of fact or fiction, Homer’s tale of a Peloponnesian queen who drew the known world in her wake thanks to her devastating charisma rings true. This was a magpie culture, a civilization that loved gaudy, sparkling things and that fetishized physical allure. Beauty was, after all, a gift of the gods.

Grave Circle A – these homes of the dead tell us most about Mycenaean life. Although Heinrich Schliemann uncovered a gold mask he claimed as Agamemnon’s, this artifact predates the traditional dating for the Trojan War by at least 300 years.

Ira Block/National Geographic Creative.

One female head found in the cult centre here (a small series of interlinking corridor rooms still being excavated and reached now by a squeaking wooden gate), belonging to a sphinx, a goddess, a high-priestess, we still don’t know, glares out, face bleached with white-lead, red suns tattooed on her chin, forehead and cheeks. Another woman like her collapses in ecstasy on an altar, immortalized half an inch high on a golden signet ring. The Odyssey talks of Helen of Troy mixing up a sorceress’s brew to help home-coming warriors forget their sorrow, and in Mycenaean graves dishes containing industrial quantities of laudanum suggest that women were indeed in charge of drug distribution in the palace-fortresses. The opium poppy was highly prized: to draw the Mycenaeans into a trance-like ritual state, or to provide pain-relief from the wounds still apparent on the cross-hatched bones laid within Mycenaean graves.

The head of a sphinx, goddess or high-priestess. We now think the whitening of the faces of real women came thanks to the use of a white lead oxide paste, remnants of which have been found in Mycenaean graves.

Gianni Dagli Orti/National Archaeological Museum, Athens/The Art Archive.

The treaties of the day show what a personal business the power-mongering of this epoch was. Great kings, the Agamemnons and Priams of their time, wrote frequently to one another, letters and edicts, some icy with respect, others honey-tongued. There were constant negotiations – war was an expensive, wasteful business. The pecking-order was broadcast via vast feasts. Cattle, goats, sheep, pigs were herded into Mycenae to be ritually slaughtered. Visitors brought their own contributions in an effort to impress or even outdo their host. Lentil broths, chick-pea pancakes, fruit stews, roast boar, hare, duck and venison were all consumed. One Mycenaean tablet records 1,700 litres of wine waiting to be drunk, and in the storerooms 2,856 kylikes (long-stemmed wine cups) have been drained of their final toast. Bedsteads were imported for workers and guests alike. The code that stitched Mycenae into the aristocratic network of the eastern Mediterranean at feasts such as this was an unwritten one. There was no recognized international law and so xenia – guest–host friendship – told the world who was whose ally. It was this law of xenia that Paris so famously broke when he and Helen eloped from Sparta and cuckolded Menelaus.

Walking through the knee-high remains of Mycenae today – even though the hippopotamus ivory bedsteads, the solid silver monkey ornaments, the masks of gold, the ‘Egyptian’ reception rooms (‘made in Egypt’ was a kite-mark of quality) have all gone – we can still feel the citadel’s vim, vigour and raw ambition. A culture worthy of epic poetry and the singers of songs – the bards who are immortalized on the palace walls of one of Mycenae’s neighbours, Pylos.

But there was a genetic flaw in Mycenae’s DNA code. By establishing a rich unit, packed with material goods, its kings and queens were honing a jewel irresistible to thieves. The city birthed a particular kind of self-contained civilization, and incarnated the self-destructive paradox of what it is to be civilized: the pressing desire for more, for what we do not have. And so the rulers of the Aegean Bronze Age got greedy; peering over the horizon they saw not just another citadel-state like theirs, but potential plunder. Their culture becomes more militarized: gods such as the smiting Zeus – who first appears in the West around 1600 BC as a diminutive creature – begin to hold sway. There were triumphs and then there was tragedy. Around 1100 BC Mycenae is lost in a fireball of destruction. The highly sexualized female ritual figures are stowed away, their faces turned to the wall, livestock is released, the city is reduced to rubble. The exquisite Mycenaean experiment in earthly beauty and total control is aborted: the so-called Greek ‘Dark Age’ begins.

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