Mycenae is an ancient city-state located in Greece on the Peloponnese Peninsula, upon a hilltop on the lower slopes of the Euboea Mountains, between two of its peaks, on the road leading from the Argolic Gulf. This site has been inhabited since around 4000 b.c.e. in the Neolithic Period. Mycenae gained in power and influence in the Late Bronze Age (1350–1200 b.c.e.).
The Mycenaean culture was originally based on warfare due to the rugged geography, which made farming difficult and herding a challenge. These warrior-chiefs would eventually become conquerors and administrators, bringing Greek knowledge to the Mediterranean.
The ancient city is built on an acropolis, surrounded by massive "cyclopean" walls, with a palace at the summit of the hill. Known as megarons, Mycenaean palaces were great halls with a portico in front, similar to the long houses of the Helladic period.
These palaces were more functional and austere than those of Knossos or Akrotiri. As with most expansionist civilizations, Mycenae broadened its military reach in search of raw materials and goods to support its population.
The most famous of the Mycenaean raids is the war against Troy in Asia Minor. Mycenaean warriors’ raiding ships traveled to Crete and Egypt as well and were even encouraged to practice piracy. Eventually raiding shifted to trading, with evidence of Mycenae and Crete trading goods as early as 1600 b.c.e.
Mycenae transitioned from a military center to a center for the redistribution of goods over the many roads connecting it to the surrounding coastal towns. During this time the Mycenaeans gradually adopted Minoan technology and artistic skills, while passing on the Linear B script that was used for record keeping and eventually developed into the Greek language.
The development of the Greek alphabet began in Phoenicia, where a consonant-only writing system first appeared. The Mycenaeans took this writing and added vowels to it, creating Linear B writing.
This alphabet had 24 letters, and its name came from combining the names of its first two letters, alpha and beta. Linear B script was used to inscribe the stories passed on by Homer, the trading records of Aegean cultures, and the political and social structures they developed.
The Mycenaeans shared many of the religious beliefs of the Minoans. Mycenae had a polytheistic religion and was actively syncretistic, which means that they added foreign gods to their pantheon of gods. However, many early forms of the Hellenistic Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses are found in the archaeological record.
Like other monarchial societies, Mycenae would bury their kings in lavish tholos tombs, large chambers cut into the side of a hill. Another unique religious practice of the nobility is the burial mask, placed over the face. Goldsmiths would fashion a likeness of the deceased’s face and create a thin mask with the appearance of sleeping eyes on it.
As trading with the rest of the eastern Mediterranean increased, so did trades practiced by Mycenaean citizens. In addition to warriors, craftsmen such as bronze workers, potters, masons, and carpenters began to develop.
Also, bakers, messengers and heralds, and shepherds are found in the artistic record left in frescoes and on pottery. Mycenaean social classes began to develop and take shape as well. At the top of the society were the kings and other war leaders.
Unlike the kings of Minoa, Mycenaean kings accumulated wealth that they did not share with commoners. He was also the warlord of a society that was geared for war and prepared for invasion. There were also lower members of society, consisting of soldiers, peasants, artisans, serfs, and even slaves.
Mycenae became the central power in a loose confederation of city-states throughout the Aegean Sea. Possible other members of the city-states were Tiryns, Pylos, Thebes, and Orchomenos. Mycenae was the strongest. This political system is described in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.
Many scholars believe that Agamemnon may have been the king of Mycenae during the events of the Trojan War. A series of fires from 1250 to 1100 b.c.e. brought down the political and military power of Mycenae. The Dorians of Argos finally conquered the city-state in 468 b.c.e., and its population was banished from the ruins.
The Greek writer Pausanias visited Mycenae during the second century c.e. and reported that it had been abandoned for some time. The political influence of Mycenae over the Aegean region spread the language, culture, and trade that would eventually develop into Hellenistic Greece.