Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Thirty-One

The Mycenaeans of Greece

On the Greek peninsula, between 1600 and 1400 BC, Mycenaean cities fight with their neighbors and carry on trade by sea

WHILE THE MINOANS of Crete were descending into increasing shabbiness and disorder, the cities on the peninsula north of the island were growing greater.

By 1600, the people of Mycenae had begun to bury their rulers in graves well stocked with treasure, high on a central hill. Whoever these kings were, they had gained enough power over their subjects to be treated with honor in death. But their authority didn’t extend very far beyond Mycenae’s walls. The royal palace at Mycenae was matched by another that dominated the city of Thebes, to the northeast; a third palace stood at Pylos, on the southwest coast, and a fourth was built at Athens, just across a short expanse of land.1 The cities on the Greek peninsula, divided from each other by mountain ridges, ruled over themselves from their earliest days.80

Despite this independence, the cities shared trade, a language, and a culture. It is from the city of Mycenae, the largest on the peninsula, that the culture takes its name; as far as the historian is concerned, Thebes, Athens, and Pylos were all inhabited by Mycenaeans.

A tradition preserved by the Greek historian Plutarch (among others) tells us that the Minoans and the Mycenaeans fell out with each other very early. One of Minos’s sons, wandering around on the northern peninsula for some unknown reason, was killed by Mycenaeans; as blood-price for his son, Minos ordered the Mycenaean cities to take up the burden of supplying live boys and girls for the upkeep of the bull-man beneath the Knossos palace.


31.1 The Mycenaeans

According to Plutarch, this burden was borne by the city of Athens, on the southeastern coast. For two years the people of Athens sent their sons and daughters to the Minotaur. By the third year, though, the Athenian parents were muttering with increasing bitterness against their king Aegeus, who seemed helpless against the Minoan tyrant. In the face of their swelling rage, the prince Theseus—eldest son of Aegeus—stepped forwards; he would join the third shipful of tribute, the seventh of the young men, and try to fight the Minotaur.

Aegeus, without a lot of hope that his son would return, nevertheless gave the black-sailed tribute ship an additional sail of white. Theseus promised to hoist the white sail if he overcame the Minotaur and came back unharmed. If he fell, like the others, to the Minotaur’s appetite, the pilot would unfurl the black sail, so that the father would know the worst before the ship reached port.

Once in Crete, Theseus and the other victims were sent into the Labyrinth, to be hunted through the passages by the Minotaur until they were either eaten or died from exhaustion, unable to find their way out. But Theseus caught the eye of Minos’s daughter, Ariadne. She gave him, in secret, a ball of string; when he was taken to the maze, he placed the ball on the ground at the Labyrinth’s gate and followed it as it rolled slowly down towards the sunken center. He reached the monster’s lair, killed the Minotaur, and then traced the string back out (having had the forethought to attach the end of it to the doorpost).

He then collected the other prisoners and fled back towards home, having first “bored holes in the bottom of the Cretan ships to hinder their pursuit.”2 But in the flush of triumph, Theseus forgot to change the ship’s sail. Seeing the ominous black triangle on the horizon, Aegeus threw himself off the cliff near Athens into the sea. Theseus arrived, in victory, to a weeping city; the emerald sea just beyond it was known as the Aegean afterwards, in his father’s memory.

BITS OF HISTORY glint from the facets of this myth. The Mycenaean skill at sea is on display in Theseus, staving in ship bottoms and piloting his ship home. In the Iliad, set down in writing some eight centuries later, the city of Mycenae is credited with sending a hundred ships to the combined Greek fleet: an enormous number of ships which makes Mycenae’s king one of the most powerful leaders of the expedition against Troy. But in Homer’s day, Mycenae was a shabby little town with no might.3 The catalogue of ships in the Iliad preserves a much older tradition of Mycenaean naval might.81

The Mycenaean ships were more likely to be loaded with merchandise than with living tribute. Mycenaean pottery made it as far east as Carchemish, and up northeast as far as Masat, to the north of Hattusas; Mycenaean ships sailed south to Egypt, where a cup from Mycenae was buried in style with an official of Tuthmosis III.4

But the Mycenaean trade went on chiefly with Minoans of Crete. The kingly graves of Mycenae, the burial places of the so-called Royal Grave Circle, are filled with Minoan pottery, paintings done in Minoan style, and portraits of Mycenaeans in Minoan clothing. The oxhide shields of the soldiers of Knossos are painted with dapples that mimic animal hide; the shields of Mycenae bear the same pattern.5 And it was from the Minoans that the Mycenaeans learned to write. The Minoans had evolved their own distinct script, following the old pattern that had developed thousands of years before: from seals on goods to pictograms, from pictograms to a streamlined pictographic script. The earliest form of this script survives on a scattering of tablets and stone engravings across Crete, and is generally called “Linear A” to distinguish it from its more sophisticated descendent: “Linear B,” the version of Minoan script which spread north to the Mycenaeans.6

Despite some shared culture, there was war between the two peoples from the earliest times. The victory of Theseus—a victory of wits and civilization over a brutal and unsophisticated people—mirrors the later Greek disdain for other civilizations. Herodotus himself voices this scorn, explaining that the Greek ruler Polycrates was the first man to field a navy, and establish his rule over the sea: “I discount Minos of Knossos and anyone earlier than Minos who gained control of the sea,” Herodotus remarks, in passing; “it remains the case that Polycrates was the first member of what we recognize as the human race to do so.”7

This dislike was sharpened by the competition between the two peoples. The navies of both patrolled the Mediterranean, and it is unlikely that the two fleets existed in perfect peace. The trade with Egypt, which had gold and ivory, was too valuable; any king would have seen the advantage of a monopoly. And Crete boasted a strategic location, right on the trade route south into Egypt.

The Minoan goods found in Mycenaean graves reflect a temporary Cretan dominance. But after the eruption of Thera, the cultural influence between Crete and Greece began to run the other way. Distinctively Mycenaean pottery and cups appeared with greater frequency in Minoan houses, and by 1500 or so, Cretan tombs began to show a distinctively Mycenaean design that had not appeared on the island before.8 The tribute of Athens to Knossos had reversed itself. Like the victorious Theseus, the Mycenaean cities had gained the upper hand over the island to the south.

Sometime around 1450, the city of Knossos was sacked, although its palace remained standing. The palaces of Mallia and Phaistos were flattened. Across Crete, some towns were abandoned; others shrank, abruptly, as if their young men had fought and fallen, or fled.

No traces of a new culture appear on the landscape. We can only assume that the Mycenaean-Minoan relationship had degenerated still further, from thorny jousting into out-and-out war. The survival of the Knossos palace implies that someone in the invading force needed the Minoan center of government for his own uses; whatever Mycenaean king led the invasion may have used Knossos as his own headquarters.9

But life in Crete after the invasion does not appear to have changed remarkably. The tombs remained more or less the same in design, Linear B continued in use, the pottery of the Minoans did not suddenly alter.10 By the time of the takeover, the Mycenaean invaders were much like the Minoans. Their arrival was more like a sibling takeover, a formal change in leadership between two countries that had already been exchanging breath for centuries. The Minoans had been infiltrated, changed from within; the Labyrinth had been breached.


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