Tucked into a fold of the hills just east of the road from Kórinthos to Árgos, Agamemnon’s citadel at MYCENAE (Mykínes) fits the legend better than any other place in Greece. It was uncovered in 1874 by the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann (who also excavated the site of Troy), impelled by his single-minded belief that there was a factual basis to Homer’s epics. Schliemann’s finds of brilliantly crafted gold and sophisticated tomb architecture bore out the accuracy of Homer’s epithets of “well-built Mycenae, rich in gold”. And with the accompaniment of the sound of bells drifting down from goats grazing on the hillsides, a stroll around the ramparts is still evocative of earlier times.
The Mycenae-Árgos region is one of the longest occupied in Greece, with evidence of Neolithic settlements from around 3000 BC. But it is to the period from around 1550 to 1200 BC that the citadel of Mycenae and its associated drama belong. This period is known as Mycenaean, a term that covers not just the Mycenae region but a whole Bronze Age civilization that flourished in southern Greece at the time, referred to in Homer’s epics.
The archeological remains of Mycenae fit remarkably easily with the tales (see Mycenaean murders), at least if it is taken as a poetic rendering of dynastic struggles, or, as most scholars now believe it to be, a merging of stories from various periods. The buildings unearthed by Schliemann show signs of occupation from around 1950 BC, as well as two periods of intense disruption, around 1200 BC and again in 1100 BC – at which stage the town, though still prosperous, was abandoned.
No coherent explanation has been put forward for these events, but it seems that war among the rival kingdoms was a major factor in the Mycenaean decline. These struggles appear to have escalated as the civilization developed in the thirteenth century BC: excavations at Troy revealed the sacking of that city, quite possibly by forces led by a king from Mycenae, in 1240 BC. The Mycenae citadel seems to have been replanned, and heavily fortified, during this period.
The Citadel of Mycenae is entered through the famous Lion Gate, whose huge sloping gateposts bolster walls dubbed “Cyclopean” by later Greeks, in bewildered attribution to the only beings deemed capable of their construction. Above them a graceful carved relief stands out in confident assertion: Mycenae at its height led a confederation of Argolid towns (Tiryns, Árgos, Assine, Hermione – present-day Ermióni), dominated the Peloponnese and exerted influence throughout the Aegean. The motif of a pillar supported by two muscular lions was probably the symbol of the Mycenaean royal house, for a seal found on the site bears a similar device.
Inside the walls to the right is Grave Circle A, the royal cemetery excavated by Schliemann, who believed it contained the bodies of Agamemnon and his followers, murdered on their triumphant return from Troy. Opening one of the graves, he found a tightly fitting and magnificent gold mask that had somehow preserved the flesh of a Mycenaean noble; “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon,” he exclaimed in an excited cable to the king of Greece. For a time it seemed that this provided irrefutable evidence of the truth of Homer’s tale. In fact, the burials date from about three centuries before the Trojan War, though given Homer’s possible combining of several earlier sagas, there’s no reason why they should not have been connected with a Mycenaean king Agamemnon. They were certainly royal graves, for the finds (now in the National Archeological Museum in Athens) are among the richest that archeology has yet unearthed.
Schliemann took the extensive South House, beyond the grave circle, to be the Palace of Agamemnon. However, a building much grander and more likely to be the Royal Palace was later discovered near the summit of the acropolis. Rebuilt in the thirteenth century BC, this is an impressively elaborate and evocative building complex; although the ruins are only at ground level, the different rooms are easily discernible. Like all Mycenaean palaces, it is centred around a great court: on the south side, a staircase would have led via an anteroom to the big rectangular throne room; on the east, a double porch gave access to the megaron, the grand reception hall with its traditional circular hearth. The small rooms to the north are believed to have been royal apartments, and in one of them the remains of a red stuccoed bath have led to its fanciful identification as the scene of Agamemnon’s murder.
The secret cistern and merchant houses
A salutary reminder of the nature of life in Mycenaean times is the secret cistern at the eastern end of the ramparts, created around 1225 BC. Whether it was designed to enable the citadel’s occupants to withstand siege from outsiders, rival Mycenaeans or even an increasingly alienated peasantry is not known. Steps lead down to a deep underground spring; it’s still possible to descend the whole way, though you’ll need to have a torch and be sure-footed, since there’s a drop to the water at the final turn of the twisting passageways. Nearby is the House of Columns, a large and stately building with the base of a stairway that once led to an upper storey.
Only the ruling Mycenaean elite could live within the citadel itself. Hence the main part of town lay outside the walls and, in fact, extensive remains of merchants’ houses have been uncovered near to the road. Their contents included inscribed tablets (in Linear B, an early form of Greek) which detailed the spices used to scent oils, suggesting that the early Mycenaeans may have dabbled in the perfume trade. The discovery of the tablets has also shown that, here at least, writing was not limited to government scribes working in the royal palaces, as had previously been thought, and that around the citadel there may have been a commercial city of some size and wealth.
Alongside the merchants’ houses are the remains of Grave Circle B, from around 1650 BC and possibly of an earlier, rival dynasty to those kings buried in Grave Circle A, and two tholos (circular chamber-type) tombs, identified by Schliemann as the tombs of “Aegisthus” and “Klytemnestra”. The former, closer to the Lion Gate, dates from around 1500 BC and has now collapsed, so is roped off; the latter dates from some two centuries later – thus corresponding with the Trojan timescale – and can still be entered.
The Treasury of Atreus
Four hundred metres down the road from the Citadel site is another, far more startling, tholos, known as the Treasury of Atreus or – the currently preferred official name – “Tomb of Agamemnon”. This was certainly a royal burial vault at a late stage in Mycenae’s history, contemporary with the “Tomb of Klytemnestra”, so the attribution to Agamemnon is as good as any – if the king were indeed the historic leader of the Trojan expedition. Whoever it belonged to, this beehive-like structure, built without the use of mortar, is an impressive monument to Mycenaean building skills. Entering the tomb along a majestic 15m corridor, you arrive at the chamber doorway, above which is a great lintel formed by two immense slabs of stone – one of which, a staggering 9m long, is estimated to weigh 118 tonnes.
According to legend, the city of Mycenae was founded by Perseus, the slayer of Medusa the Gorgon, before it fell into the bloodied hands of the House of Atreus. Atreus, in an act of vengeance for his wife’s seduction by his brother Thyestes, murdered Thyestes’ sons, and fed them to their father. Not surprisingly, this incurred the wrath of the gods: Thyestes’ daughter, Pelopia, subsequently bore her father a son, Aegisthus, who later murdered Atreus and restored Thyestes to the throne.
The next generation saw the gods’ curse fall upon Atreus’ son Agamemnon. On his return to Mycenae after commanding the Greek forces in the Trojan War – a role in which he had earlier consented to the sacrifice of his own daughter, Iphigeneia – he was killed in his bath by his wife Klytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, who had also killed his father. The tragic cycle was completed by Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, who, egged on by his sister Elektra, took revenge by murdering his mother, Klytemnestra, and was pursued by the Furies until Athena finally lifted the curse on the dynasty.