The Greeks of the Late Bronze Age
A brief introduction to the spearwielding Mycenean world 3000+ years ago
Greece as we imagine it today is of course vastly different from what it used to be. Actually way back, before even the classical city states of Athens and Sparta flourished there were Greek speaking ancestors living in what is Greece today. Their culture flourished during the Late Bronze Age from ca 1400 to 1200 BCE.
They spoke some form of Greek, but would not have known the word “Greek”. That word seems to be the English version of a Roman invention.
They would call themselves Acheans. Or at least that’s what the much later poet Homer writing his epics in around 700 BCE calls them. It seems likely that the Egyptians would have called them Ekwesh and that the massive Hittite Empire would have known the Acheans as Ahhiyawa. Not that different from the word “Achean”. Now, the Acheans are often refered to as Myceneans, after the great now destroyed palace of Mycenea. It is now in ruins but as you can see above the impressive Lion Gate remains.
The Acheans were a warlike bunch. Of course, Homer’s Illiad and Odyssee are written much later but if there is any historical truth to the epics, they show a society centered around violence. Pillaging settlements and killing the men along with raping and then enslaving captive women all seem to have been considered worthy enterprises. Again, if we turn to the Homeric epics, Odysseus is quite insulted when taken to be a merchant and brags about his pillaging, killing and enslaving.
The Myceneans used bronze weapons and armor. Look at this impressive suit of armor, known as the Dendra Armor, or Panoply, after the site where it was found.
Of course such extremely expensive equipment would only have been available to the absolute elite and royalty. Along with a spear and shield, as well as a bronze sword for backup, an elite Mycenean warrior riding a chariot would have been a formidable opponent (more on the dendra armor see (Taracha 1999)).
Other warriors would have settle for less. A shield, spear and some kind of armor, perhaps layers of cloth studded with a few bronze plates would have been common. Along of course with a helmet. Famously made from tusks of boars they might have been common throughout the armies or warbands of the Bronze Age. Actually these went out of style centuries before Homer, so it is a curious fact that Odysseus wears one in the Illiad. This is taken by some to be one proof of the epics actually depicting a Bronze Age world if not actual events.
I have mentioned Mycenea as an important center. Some historians, notably Jorrit Kelder, see Mycenea as a probable seat of power for the High King of the Acheans. The Hittites of the Bronze Age wrote letters to the High King of the Ahhiyawa, so if the Acheans were indeed the Ahhiyawa mentioned, they might have had a High King.
And the probable seat of this High King could be Mycenea with its imposing architecture, rich tombs and exotic object from Egypt and other places. Mycenea is also mentiond in Egyptian sources, indicating it as a place of great importance.
Mycenea is located on Peloponese, a the peninsula sticking out under Modern day Athens:
Mycenea was far from the only palace in Bronze Age Greece (or Achaia). Palaces like the ones at Pylos, Tyrins and others were indeed magnificent. It must be noted that some historians view Greece in Achean times to be a culture rather than a “state” ruled by one king. Each palace supposedly was an independent kingdom sharing a cultural and perhaps political and economic world.
I personally think it unlikely that a small kingdom like Mycenae and it’s surrounding villages and farmland should constitute a force worthy of mention by the great powers of the time. Rather, it’s more likely to have been a loose state with a High King, the wanax, with some kind of feudal or dependent lesser potentates, the quasi-re, governing each center. But, I am no professional scholar, so be cautious to take my word for it.
The palaces were administrative centers and as such they needed records. And for that writing was required. The Aceheans had their own alphabet called Linear B. This has be deciphered so we can read the records left behind. They were written on clay tablets which were not burned. Until of course the palaces burned and preserved the records for us and thus provide a peak into palace life in the Late Bronze Age.
Around 1300 century BCE (that is before Christian Era, more than three thousand years ago) the mighty palaces of the Acheans were utterly destroyed. In what is often called the Late Bronze Age collapse (see Eric Cline, book or talk) the Mycenean culture was to a large extend wiped out along with other great cultures of the time. The international system basically collapsed within a generation.
Kelder, Jorrit: Ane today — 201911 — a great king and a Wanax? the politics of Mycenaean greece (2020) American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR). Available at: https://www.asor.org/anetoday/2019/11/Great-King-and-a-Wanax (Accessed: December 15, 2022).
Cline, E.H. (2021) 1177 B.C.: The year civilization collapsed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Check out Cline’s talk about the book
Taracha, Piotr. 1999. Reconstructing the Dendra Panoply. ArchaeologiaWar 50. p. 7–12.