Life in Late Bronze Age Greece

Notes on Mycenaeans, by Rodney Castleden. Originally written in May 2011.

I have been interested in the Greek Bronze Age ever since I read Joseph Alsop’s From the Silent Earth back in High School (1964-1968). Mycenaeans is a very readable and recent survey (2005) and I was quite interested in seeing what is new. Quick summary: Some more sites have been excavated, there have been more digs at known sites, and more Linear B tablets have been found and translated. So there are Lots of new details, but no revolutionary changes in what archeologists think and the big questions remain unanswered.

The Iliad and Odyssey accurately show many objects of Mycenaean life, but give no hint of the elaborate bureacracy that the Linear B tablets reveal. Conversely the tablets give a detailed snapshot of the economy, but tell us nothing about the personalities and history of the age. This is very frustrating since we have extensive contemporary records from Egypt, the Hittite Empire, Ugarit, and elsewhere in the region.

Given the limited materials, Castleden gives a good picture of Mycenaean religion. Priestesses were very important in the society of the age, and could own both land and slaves.

Castleden’s most controversial suggestion is that the “palaces” at Mycenae, Pylos, etc. were in fact temples: Houses for God(esse)s rather than Kings. This solves some problems but introduces others. To add to the confusion, temples were sometimes described as houses for deities and also some Bronze Age Kings, e.g. in Egypt, were considered to be Gods.

The Mycenaeans were also great engineers. In addition to the Cyclopean fortresses at Mycenae, Tiryns, and elsewhere, they

  • Drained Lake Copais in Boeotia.
  • Diverted rivers at Tiryns and near Pylos for the construction of their harbors.
  • Used the relieving triangle in their architecture.

Appendix E, “The Epic Cycle” is a nice touch. While we have the Iliad and Odyssey, in classical Greece there were several other epic poems to complete the story of the Trojan war. These have not survived, but some quotations and references to them by classical writers are still around. Castleden put them together so we can see what each of the other epics were about.

We still have no contemporary record of the Trojan war. The apparent references to Mycenaeans in Hittite records (the Ahhijawa) seem to be valid, but are not very helpful for Mycenaean studies. The sudden end of the Mycenaean Palace civilization about 1200 B.C., traditionally associated with the Dorian invasion, is still mysterious.