We still know relatively little about Mycenaean politics and society. We can tell from excavated gold treasures that Mycenae itself was wealthy, which is not surprising considering that it had conquered Crete. But the Mycenaeans seem not to have been overseas empire builders, even in the sense that the Cretans had been; their occupation of Crete may well have been undertaken by an invading captain.
The Achaeans or Greeks of whom the Hittite sources speak may not have been the Greeks of Mycenae at all but Greeks of Rhodes, another island principality. And there were other settlements in the southern Greek mainland (called the Peloponnesus) which seem to have been extensive, too, and perhaps under local rulers bound in alliance to the Mycenaeans. A loose confederacy among equals seems to fit best with the evidence.
Tombs from the period before 1400 B.C. tell us of the structure of society, for they are of two sharply distinct types: those carefully built to take the bodies of kings and nobles, and simple burial places for the rest of the population. Tombs from the period between 1400 and 1200 show a rise in general wealth; there are more chamber tombs with more gifts in them. Similarly, at Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, Athens, and Thebes there arose great palaces with workshops, storage areas, guardrooms, and lesser dwelling houses attached. Roads and bridges connected the main towns, and water supply systems provided the towns with security. Artisans built and repaired chariots, made jars to hold wine and oil, tanned leather, wrought bronze in the forges, made bricks, and sewed garments. Workmen stored goods for preservation, sale, and exchange. A Mycenaean palace was a businesslike and noisy place.
The Linear B tablets preserve records of furniture elaborately inlaid in ivory, glass, and gold. Smaller than the great palaces on Crete, those of the Mycenaeans nonetheless testify to a vibrant life in a complex society. One of the richest hoards, containing treasures in gold, jewels, and bronze manufactured over five centuries, was found in a private house in Tiryns; it was obviously the booty of a Mycenaean grave robber with a fine taste in antiques.
Mycenaean bureaucrats kept elaborate records of how much land and livestock each subject possessed, the cash or commodities owed in taxes, the amounts of bronze issued to each craftsman, and how much of everything was kept in each storeroom. Nothing like the Mycenaean bureaucracy ever reappeared in Greece. And yet the records do not tell us all that we want to know; although we know the titles of various officials, we cannot be sure of their duties or gain a clear picture of governmental organization.
Until 1968 no Mycenaean religious shrine had ever been found. Gems discovered in Mycenaean tombs showed Cretan deities and religious scenes. The Linear B tablets from Pylos recorded offerings made to certain gods: Poseidon, god of the sea; Ares, god of war; Artemis, goddess of the moon; and even Zeus and Hera, to later Greeks the supreme ruler of the gods and his consort. The tablets contain the names of other gods who did not survive the Dark Age that lay ahead, and so did not reappear in classical Greece. But in 1968 at Mvcenae, in a small storeroom, archaeologists found clay figures that suggest a religious cult-six coiled snakes and sixteen human, mostly female, hollow figures, only one of which is clothed and colored.
The most important episode of the three centuries 1400-1100 is the Trojan War, usually dated about 1250 or 1200 B.C., known to every Greek of the classical period from the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems put together about five centuries after the event. The war was a great expedition led by the king of Mycenae, Agamemnon, in command of a fleet and an army contributed by the other
towns and islands of Mycenaean Greece, against Troy, allegedly a rich city on the northwest coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey) not far from the mouth of the Dardanelles. The Trojans were related to the Greeks, though they were less advanced. They did not write, and they seem to have had little contact with the Cretans or the Hittites. But many Mycenaean objects found in the ruins of Troy show that the Trojans traded with mainland Greece, perhaps offering in exchange for their goods woolen textiles and horses.
The famous Greek expedition to avenge the abduction by the Trojan prince Paris of the beautiful Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, prince of Mycenaean Sparta, is simply a romantic tale. The tradition that the siege lasted ten years, involving many ships and men before Agamemnon’s forces won and burned Troy, may be romance, too. Excavations show that the city of Troy, destroyed about 1250 or somewhat later, was the seventh city on the site. The first five belonged to an earlier people and had already been destroyed by 1900 B.C., when the Trojans arrived. These newcomers built Troy VI, a magnificent walled citadel enclosing a few houses for the most important people, who ruled over a larger subject population on the slopes of a hillside and in the plain below. Troy VI was ruined about 1300, probably by an earthquake. And then Troy VII, a shriveled, partial restoration of the great Troy VI, was built in and on the ruins.
It is this shrunken city that was destroyed by enemies a few generations later. But its shabbiness is so at variance with the traditions of its splendor remembered in the Iliad, and the date of its destruction lies so near the date at which we know that Mycenaean Greece itself collapsed under the blows of new enemies, that a few scholars now believe that there never was a Trojan War at all. This view will probably be slow to win acceptance because the story of Troy is so deeply embedded in our cultural traditions. Scholars who believe in the war gain comfort from the fact that the Iliad calls the Greeks Achaeans, and that Achaeans are almost surely mentioned also in Hittite sources as a powerful people who sometimes raided the coasts of Anatolia in the thirteenth century. Perhaps these “Achaeans” came from nearby Rhodes and were relatives of those who fought and won the Trojan War. Troy itself, however, went almost without mention in Hittite written sources.
Soon after the fall of Troy VII there began the upheavals in which the so-called Sea Peoples ruined the Hittite state and the Egyptian New Kingdom and left the Philistines as new settlers on the shores of Palestine. These destabilizing changes helped generate a wave of violence that also destroyed Mycenaean Greece. Invaders from the north swept over all of Greece; the palaces and tombs vanished, and with them went Mycenaean civilization. Scholars once called these invaders Dorians and attributed most of the destruction to them. We now believe that the Dorians did indeed invade about 1100, but that Mycenaean civilization had probably been pretty thoroughly destroyed before they arrived.