In the Iliad, Homer wrote about many historical Greek characters that actually lived — in Mycenae, Sparta, and other villages of the Peloponnese, and none more famous than King Agamemnon and his churlish subordinate, Achilles.
Mycenae was a powerful military citadel, winding across an acropolis with a 360 degree view of the bountiful Argolis Plain (within Argolis province) and overlooking the Saronic Gulf of the Ionian Sea. The Mycenaean civilization flourished for over 500 years from 1600 B.C. to about 1100 B.C.
Agamemnon's Palace and courtyard.
The early historian Pausanias suggested that Mycenae’s founder, Megapenthes, named the city Myces after plucking a mushroom cap on the acropolis, and I must state that after strolling around the site the top knob indeed resembled a bulbous spore. Other interpretations of Mycenae’s name are “The Place of the Sword” or the sheath of the sword. Discounting the nomenclature, the Acropolis was chosen because of its fresh zephyrs from the coast, its fantastic vantage point, and the fertile Argolis Plain, where even today burst forth grains, olives, oranges, apricots, Clementines, melons, squash, artichokes, cherries, lemons, all mostly pollinated by the swarms of bees I encountered buzzing the Mycenae archaeological site.
Achilles and Agamemnon dominate the Mycenae scene about 1,200 B.C. King Atreus of Mycenae was the father of two sons: Agamemnon and Menalaros (or also known as Menelaus). King Tyndareus of Sparta had two daughters: Helen and Clytemnestra. Many believe it was Agamemnon’s wife, who launched a thousand ships against Troy, but it was actually Menalaros who married Helen; Agamemnon had wedded Clytemnestra. Paris, a prince of Troy was invited to the nuptial party in Sparta and later spirited off with Helen – but was it her own free will that launched the insult against Menalaros? Pelus, the king of Phthia fathered Achilles, who grew up strong in the mountains of Pelion and he too would be entwined into Homer’s tale. After King Atreus died Agamemnon inherited the throne of Mycenae. When King Tyndareus died Menalaros was crowned the king of Sparta. The cast of characters were all sons of kings and the fate of Troy and Mycenae had been cast.
Ancient Mycenae structure..
It must be pointed out that the city of Argos, 11 kms south of Mycenae was not the home of Jason and the Argonauts of Odyssey fame. No doubt the thousands of ships oared and sailed from the Mycenae coast probably included the present commercial port of Calamata (in the province of the same name), a deep water anchorage and train depot terminus 90 kms southwest of Athens and famous for its oranges and figs and worry beads.
Foundations on the Acropolis.
After Helen was kidnapped all the kings of the Peloponnese elected Agamemnon as the commander-in-chief of all the Greek forces, and for ten years the king and Achilles had a tumultuous relationship, possibly over the beauty of another woman - Briseis. The Palace of Agamemnon is a faded hint of its splendor on the Mycenae Acropolis, overlooking a steep ravine and the Argolid Plain in the distance.
In ancient Greek, Acropolis meant hilltop or “on the edge”, every city had their own fortified aerie, otherwise they were classified a village. An Acropolis was usually surrounded by stone walls with a secret cistern or spring within the city gates. Tourists often visit the hidden cistern at Mycenae. I envisioned Agamemnon in his palace on the Acropolis gazing out to sea with the entire Greek fleet harbored but cosseted close to shore as the he hammered out the battle plans over wine and figs with his kings/generals. If they had only known at the time that the siege of Troy would last a decade possibly the dialogue would have swung toward peace, But Menalaros had been insulted, the trireme captains paced the decks in anticipation, the Kings took an oath of vengeance, and the Iliad was yet to be written.
The Mycenae Museum, mid left, with olive groves in the distance.
Achilles was called by his fellow warriors Aristos Achion or “Best of the Greeks”. But Agamemnon could not move Achilles and his forces to attack the impenetrable walls and gates of Troy, so the king threw insults at him. Hector, brother of Paris, called for a bargain or truce, but Achilles replied: “There are no bargains between lions and men” — the war had been jump started. After Achilles’ male lover Patcrolus was killed, supposedly clad in Achilles’ armor, the hero of the Iliad went on a killing rampage, eventually slaying Hector and dragging him by his heels behind his chariot for the Trojans to watch aghast. It must now be noted that the gateway keystone in the entrance arch of Mycenae was carved with a Lion Head Gate (two lionesses, built about 1250 B.C.) and may have prompted Achilles’ reply to Hector.
View from the Acropolis with homes in the top left.
While hiking the paved walkways of the Acropolis I noticed below me the foundation outlines of the homes in the hamlet, store houses, workshops, and other buildings; much of the present Acropolis stonework lies along surveys lines of reconstructed fortifications, other cut stones are arrayed haphazardly in the grass and spring flowers.
Mycenae Museum artifacts.
With modern excavation techniques, skilled archeologists discovered cist or shaft graves near the perimeter of the walled city, many with mounds. In the regal graves an assortment of treasures were found and many are displayed in the adjoining museum on the brow of Mycenae, others are seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The most notable finds were the Mask of Agamemnon, The Cup of Nestor, and the Silver Siege Rhyton (plural, rhyta, a ceremonial drinking vessel), plus numerous engraved and precious metal inlaid swords and daggers, and more common spear tips and arrowheads, pottery and water jugs.
The famous so called "discoverer” of Troy by the German Henrich Schliemann in the 19th century was an unscientific rampage and pillage of the Trojan site. Schliemann, married to a Greek wife, also ransacked the Acropolis of Mycenae after his Troy exploits. There is also a fable about the Treasures of King Artreus, a hoard of gold and silver beyond belief, which was buried with him in the unique beehive mounds farther down the slope on the road to the modern town of Mycenae.
Inside the Bee Hive tomb.
Obviously the Mycenaeans recognized the value of bees so they hand dug elaborate graves and lined them with precisely cut stones that formed a corbelled chamber over 200 high and exactly like a beehive.
It is believed Agamemnon was buried with his father, but no trace of either has surfaced from any of these plundered shadowy and cool tholai tombs. Many others believe the Treasures were the King and his son, Agamemnon.
The Bee Hive tomb.
From the beehive tomb the majesty of Agamemnon’s acropolis is apparent. The giant blocks interlocked in the circuit wall were thought by later Greeks to have been constructed by Cyclopos (giant one-eyed Cyclops).
Agamemnon’s palace featured a throne room or megaron, with a raised hearth below an open roof, all supported by columns. The walls were painted brilliant with frescos. A grand staircase led from the palace terrace to a courtyard with a colonnaded portico. After Agamemnon returned to Mycenae from the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra, had him killed in the palace while bathing. Other majestic edifices adorned the ancient Acropolis, including The House of Shields, the House of the Oil Merchant, the House of the Sphinxes, and the West House.
The Mycenae Acropolis blends in with its surroundings.
The citadel encompasses about 1100 meters in a curlicue fashion with a wall height of over 12 meters and a width of 7-17 meters, making the Mycenae capital formidable for its time; the average stone was over ten tons. It would have taken over a century for the Acropolis to be completed in stages is using man power, but just around ten years if oxen were whipped to the task. The largest stones are the gate jambs and lintels that ranged from 20-100 tons. Hmmm . . . who were those space-alien Cyclops? Even the Egyptians knew of the fame of Mycenae, which ruled much of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea during their maritime heyday. The Pharaohs called the city Mukana, ruled by the Pelopid family, with one branch of the family tree, the Atreid dynasty, Agamemnon’s ancestors.
Search for the secret cistern.
Mycenae's lower fortifications.
Even during King Agamemnon’s reign, Mycenae was in decline, another possible reason for the Trojan war — to bolster the economy with loot. The Dorians from northern Ionia invaded and burned most of the palaces in the Mycenae sphere of influence. Some historians claim a drought did the great empire in, and today Greece is experiencing a long standing dry period. But the Mycenaeans hung onto their beliefs and votives for many more centuries; a regiment of them fought at the battles of Thermopylae (300 Spartans) in 480 B.C., and Plataea during the Persian Wars. But even in Roman era, Mycenae had sunk into a must-see tourist attraction, but I must report, a beautiful and magnificent one.
Of course the DNA of Agamemnon and others from the Mycenaeans lives on in the bloodlines of the very proud modern Greeks. Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature about Achilles Agony - The Trojan War.
The most pleasant touring option of the Peloponnese and Central Greece is with Insight Vacations. The London-based tour operator also conducts regular excursions to Troy and other ancient Anatolian sites in Turkey. While in the eastern Mediterranean region why not sign up for back-to-back tours of these enriching cultures? Insight Vacations operates its own motorcoaches, sets up the itineraries, and provides professional drivers and exceptional certified guides onboard.
Insight Vacations tours are classic.
Breakfasts and dinners are included, just pack your bags — but they handle your luggage all the way through. My group companions in Turkey and Greece were a fun loving bunch and the memorable spirit and camaraderie I still carry with me. After Mycenae we stopped for lunch in the burg called Mycenae for Greek salads and Mythos Beers and then it was on to a tour of a pottery and statuary factory that produced replicates of many of the ancient wonderworks of arts created by Mycenaeans and Hellenes. Visit www.insightvacations.com to view their repertory of itineraries. Next on our tour of the Peloponnese is the Ancient Olympia Stadium.
The back wall and entrance to Mycenae.