Mycenaean Greece

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Evidence for the hunter-gatherer population of Greece has been scanty, but intensive research in Epirus (northwestern Greece) and Argolid (Peloponnese, southern Greece) suggests that long-lived successful adaptations probably were widespread on the mainland by the end of the last Ice Age and in the first few millennia of the current warm era (the Holocene, after 8500 b.c.). Nonetheless, the spread of farming and the associated appearance of domestic animals, such as sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs, around 7000 b.c. are understood as marking the colonization of the Balkans, including Greece, by early farming groups migrating out of the zones where these innovations were invented, in southwestern Asia.

These first European farming settlements are best known from their closely packed artificial settlement mounds, or "tells," which mark the great plains of central and northern mainland Greece (notably, Thessaly). In contrast, the equivalent villages or farms on the southern mainland and the Aegean Islands more often are widely scattered and less substantial. Such a distribution encourages the view that this early settled farming era in Greece (the Neolithic) was a time when the centers of population and socioeconomic development lay well north of those regions of Greece that would become the focus of the succeeding Bronze Age and classical civilizations. This view, very much influenced by the comparative ease with which the prominent tells have been identified by archaeologists from early in the twentieth century, may need to be altered slightly as a result of the recent intensive study of the southern Greek landscape, where greater densities of "flat" sites are being recognized.

It may be that tell villages were more stable communities, lasting in one place for hundreds and even thousands of years, while the typical settlement in southern Greece and the islands was smaller and shifted position every few generations. Until late in the Neolithic era (c. 7000–3500 b.c.), however, both types of Greek agropastoral societies sought out well-watered light soils for their hoe- and hand-based farming. In Late Neolithic times, the diffusion—once more from the Near East—of simple plows and animal traction allowed an explosion of settlement across the expanses of fertile hill and plain country of Greece. Here, rainfall was the essential source for plant growth, rather than the lakes, streams, and springs of the preceding era. Since the areas with high water tables are concentrated in the plains of central and northern Greece, it may be that the earlier Neolithic did indeed see a greater population density. Later Neolithic technological changes might have encouraged the south and larger islands to catch up, since their potential for dry farming is much more on a par with that farther north.

Despite claims that the more elaborate village plans on tells in Thessaly suggest the presence of distinct sectors where an elite might have resided, it is not evident that Neolithic society had progressed beyond a social organization of kin groups, clans, and temporary leading families (sometimes called a "Big Man" society), into a more hierarchical stage of chiefdoms dominating one or more villages. Yet finds from a few settlements suggest that populations were well over the two hundred considered by some anthropologists as the maximum feasible for community cohesion, based on a relatively egalitarian type of (face-to-face) organization. In these cases, either some village subdivisions based on real or fictitious kinship (horizontal segmentation) or a power structure grounded in one or more leading families (vertical segmentation) must be suspected. One of the rare settlements that expanded well beyond this threshold population was the great Neolithic village that underlies the later Bronze Age palace at Knossos in Crete. Many researchers have argued that during the three millennia before the inception of the Bronze Age, Knossos grew from a small and simple hamlet of farming colonists into a precociously socially stratified small town.

As for economic development during the course of the Neolithic, there is evidence for a growing range of cultigens and more effective use of domestic animal products. In contrast, the exchange of exotic raw materials or finished artifacts generally tended to become less wide ranging, largely owing to the increasing use of regional rather than imported products.


The main phases and dates for the Aegean region are as follows.

Neolithic: c. 7000–3500 b.c.

Early Bronze Age: c. 3500–2100 b.c.

Middle Bronze Age: c. 2100–1700 b.c.

Late Bronze Age: c. 1700–1050 b.c.

The Bronze Age periods are given regional names for the Greek Mainland (Early, Middle, and Late Helladic), the Cyclades Islands (Early Cycladic, etc.), and the island of Crete (Early Minoan, etc.). These regional phases are very broadly contemporary.

With the inception of the Early Bronze Age, there are further indications of population growth and more intense colonization of the Greek landscape and clearer, if still localized, signs that in some areas a socially stratified society had begun to take shape. To the continuing impact of plow agriculture in stimulating denser population growth can be added evidence for the cultivation of the olive and the vine. There is some debate as to how firm the limited data are for such cultivation at this time, however. Much clearer evidence for large-scale reliance on these cultigens for food, drink, and storable trade items derives from the Late Bronze Age two millennia later.

Seafaring boats become more sophisticated, which probably reflects the supplementation of coastal diets with marine food as much as it does the growth of regional and interregional trade. The diffusion of copper and bronze metallurgy into the Aegean, as well as trade in its raw materials and products, added to existing commercial and gift exchange in agricultural surpluses and stone for tools and mills, to create an early "koine," or interaction zone, on the southern mainland and the islands. There is, however, no indication of any political aspect to this exchange. Notably, there is much less evidence for complementary zones of economic and cultural exchange to be found in other parts of mainland Greece, such as the northeast and northwest; however, the eastern Aegean islands and the adjacent town of Troy (northwestern Turkey) did develop a significant alternative interaction sphere.

By the third millennium b.c. on the southern mainland, a series of relatively elaborate structures, standing isolated or amid less pretentious houses, have been taken as a group to mark the creation of an elite-focused district power structure. The class was first recognized at Lerna with the House of the Tiles, where associated seal-impressions for stored containers suggest the levying of some kind of tax and its redistribution by a district authority based at the small, walled center. By the latter part of the same millennium, on the Cycladic islands in the south and on some northern islands of the Aegean, there also arose large villages or small towns with well-planned internal layouts and defensive walls, seeming to indicate the central management of local populations by emergent elite groups. Some of these centers, for example, Phylakopi on Melos, seem to be large enough to represent a class of proto-urban community that we can define as the "village-state." Here, largely endogamous marriage created a "corporate community," but one whose size would have required elaborate political management.

On the other hand, throughout this first part of the Bronze Age most of Greece retained a settlement pattern little changed from later Neolithic times. There were two interpenetrating lifestyles: more permanent villages (that is, tells or extensive flat settlements) and short-lived farms and hamlets, without any clear evidence for political stratification. The expansion of trade and population and the limited number of complex communities nonetheless give the impression that in southern Greece and the northeastern Aegean the social and economic bases had been laid for the rise of the first Aegean civilization at the start of the Middle Bronze Age, in about 2000 b.c.


That first civilization arose on the island of Crete, and it is typically referred to as the Minoan civilization, after Minos—the mythical king of Knossos, where the most spectacular center of this new culture was located. On the Greek mainland the promising high culture of the Early Bronze Age suffered a severe decline associated with violent destruction at many key sites. Some researchers take the signs of destruction to mark invasion; others link it to a climatic fluctuation, which is seen on a wider front in the eastern Mediterranean. On the islands, however, the small defended townships continued into the new era. It is perhaps less important to explain the delay in reaching civilization on the mainland than to account for why civilization on Crete emerged at all at this time.

First, let us describe the Minoan civilization in its initial phase of florescence—the age of the First Palaces, c. 2000–1800 b.c. The most striking feature is a series of palatial centers of regional administration, the apex of a settlement hierarchy that extended through small towns (which may have had mini-palatial foci) to villages and dispersed hamlets or farms. Few parts of Crete seemed to lie outside the putative control of one of the palaces, but it remains unclear whether the latter formed autonomous princedoms within a unitary culture or were subordinate to the largest and most central example at Knossos in northern Crete. Great similarities in palace design, the use of a common script (Linear A) for recording the economic production of Crete, and vigorous exchange of products clearly indicate that all the palaces were in close and presumably peaceful interaction (fortifications are rare), probably reflecting political alliances sealed by elite intermarriage.

The palaces themselves appear to have been the residences of ruling elites as well as foci for communal celebration and ritual (in the paved courts on their outer faces and the great court at their centers). Major expanses of storage would have served the needs of this elite (consumption, trading capital) and its retinue and servants; and its reserves of oil, wine, grain, and textiles would have been kept full from the tax income of the peasantry. The palaces also acted as manufacturing centers, largely for the upper class (luxury products for rituals, prestigious feasts, and so on). Around most centers, there seem to have developed extensive towns populated by a wealthy middle class (perhaps merchants, administrators, and estate owners) and a farming or servant lower class.

This First Palace period came to a violent end with a catastrophic earthquake c. 1800 b.c. The palaces and lesser centers were rebuilt almost immediately in a very similar or even more elaborate form during the Second Palace period, which lasted until another series of cataclysms c. 1400 b.c., probably caused by invading Mycenaeans (see below). One notable change in this period was the appearance of rural elite residences (perhaps also acting as dispersed administrative centers) in the form of villas across the Cretan landscape.

Although legend tells of a marine empire, or "thalassocracy," associated with Minoan Crete, the available evidence downscales this political structure to a series of zones of decreasing influence radiating out from the island. Islands nearest Crete were transformed into highly "Minoanized" townships, with one or two perhaps receiving actual colonists. Farther away, in the southern Aegean islands and on the adjacent mainlands of Greece and Turkey, Minoan influence is less pervasive, with pottery imports and imitations and the adoption of other cultural features into a predominantly local culture. More distant regions of the Aegean and some parts of the eastern Mediterranean and Italy evidence limited mutual trade with Minoan Crete. Only at the recently excavated Nile Delta palace of Tell el-Dab'a is a stronger form of Minoan influence present, in the shape of frescoes of a highly Minoan character, interpreted as perhaps the result of dynastic intermarriage between Crete and Egypt.

Only for the innermost of the three radii of Minoan influence is political control abroad a possibility. The Minoans required both everyday and precious metals from outside Crete and other materials for elite prestige items. It is difficult, however, to envisage Minoan Crete as a major merchant power rather than as an island flourishing primarily on the income and redistribution of regional production in foodstuffs and textiles. Nonetheless, there are mentions of the Minoans in contemporary state archives in the eastern Mediterranean, suggesting both minor flows of trade and political alliances. Even though the Minoan palaces incorporate elements of traditional Cretan architecture, their design also surely reflects firsthand acquaintance with the very similar, but older, tradition of royal palaces of the city-states of the Levant and parts of Turkey.

Although the clay palace archive tablets are written in Linear A, a hitherto untranslated language, there are close parallels in their form and accounting conventions to the derivative Linear B tablets used by later Mycenaean palaces (which are in readable archaic Greek). Comparison suggests that their content largely focused on monitoring the regional production and distribution of foodstuffs, raw materials, and finished artisan products, as well as equipment for the palace's officials and armed forces. This has reinforced the general view that Minoan (as Mycenaean) palace-focused polities arose and functioned primarily through controlling the people and products of their own territory. Caution is required in this interpretation, because Minoan records remain essentially unread, while the Mycenaean archives almost certainly represent regional management records. We have yet to recover the foreign correspondence that contemporary Near Eastern states of similar scale lead us to expect once existed.

Although the Aegean Islands, especially the Cyclades, were strongly influenced by the Minoans and experienced similarly varying degrees of core-periphery interaction with the following civilization—that of the mainland Mycenaean civilization—they continued to show signs of a vigorous regional culture. This is evident in the typical nuclear island townships that lasted from the later Early Bronze Age into and beyond the Middle Bronze Age. Some would elevate this culture to a distinct Cycladic civilization, even if statehood was confined to small island polities of a thousand or so people at most.


During the peak of the Minoan First Palace civilization in the centuries around 2000 b.c., mainland Greece showed little evidence of complexity above the level of village life in what is termed the Middle Helladic period (regional Middle Bronze Age). As the Minoan Second Palace period developed during the first third of the second millennium b.c., however, there were striking signs of the renewal of regional power structures across the southern mainland. In the western Peloponnese there arose across the landscape, in connection with villages and groups of small settlements, monumental earth burial tumuli with stone "beehive" chambers (tholoi), amalgamating older Cretan communal burial traditions with those of the western Balkans, to mark the emergence of district chiefdoms. In the eastern Peloponnese an alternative elite burial mode, using deep shafts, appeared. This is most notable at the site of Mycenae, where the successive shaft grave circles A and B contain fabulously rich gifts for what can be considered a powerful warrior elite. In the following centuries their descendants developed the associated settlement into a massively fortified palatial center. More subtle changes revealed by settlement archaeology also occurred across this important transformational Middle Helladic era, with the decline across mainland southern Greece of dispersed, short-lived rural sites and a focus on nuclear village and town sites associated with the crystallization of district and regional dynastic elites.

In the following era, the Late Helladic (mainland Late Bronze Age), out of this large network of greater and lesser chiefdoms arose a series of major kingdoms, covering most of southern mainland Greece and centered on palaces with surrounding towns. This relatively uniform civilization (fig. 1) is named Mycenaean after the state center with the highest status in later Greek legends, which are believed to have originated in this period. Still, Mycenae does not have the same archaeological claim to preeminence as Knossos for the Minoan civilization, being neither the largest nor the most magnificent palatial center. On the other hand, Greek myths, such as the siege of Troy, portray the king of Mycenae as merely "first among equals" amid the warrior princes representing the several states of Bronze Age Greece. This view agrees with the archaeological
picture for other major centers, such as Thebes, Pylos, and Tiryns.

Several centuries elapsed (c. 1700–1350 b.c.) between the proliferation of chiefly burials in the later Middle Helladic and the construction of the first regional palatial centers, during which we can envisage the emergence of paramount chiefs or kings from competitive networks of district elites. Elite mansions may have appeared first, followed by full-scale palaces with close parallels to obvious older models on Minoan Crete (fig. 2). Distinctive features of the mature Mycenaean major and minor centers were the provision of stone fortifications and a general preference for defensive locations. This militaristic facet was matched by a taste for scenes of warfare in Mycenaean art, which, significantly, was not seen in the more social and ritual art of the Minoans; although it seems too romantic to follow Sir Arthur Evans in imagining a Minoan society lacking internal or external violence. It is reasonable to see the small number of Mycenaean mainland states as developing in an atmosphere of endemic warfare. To judge by the increasing number and expanding scale of fortifications over time, the threat or practice of major conflicts remained until the end of this civilization, when all the key sites experienced violent destruction (c. 1250–1200 b.c.). During this period of swift decline to disappearance of Mycenaean civilization in the later thirteenth and twelfth centuries b.c., all signs of state-level authority, complex craft skills, and literacy faded away across Greece. This eclipse has led archaeologists to term the following era, up to the beginnings of historic classical Greek civilization in the eighth century b.c., a "dark age."

Despite this emphasis on militarism, which accords with later Greek legends of internal and external conflict, the climax of Mycenaean civilization c. 1450–1250 b.c. vies with the greatest period of the preceding Minoan civilization, which is certainly no
coincidence. It has been argued that Mycenaean art, architecture, and settlement organization, as well as political and economic systems, were critically stimulated through increasing contacts with its Cretan predecessor at its height. This contact came mainly through trade but presumably was accompanied by political and perhaps matrimonial alliances. The spectacular prestige objects found in the final Middle Bronze Age and the early Late Bronze Age chieftains' burials of the emergent Mycenaean culture show strong Minoan inspiration, perhaps the employment of Minoan craftsmen, and the likely obtaining of exotic materials via widespread Minoan exchange systems.

Like other core-periphery systems studied globally, the undeveloped margin grew, in turn, into a core in its own right. With many parallels, the process of role inversion may well have been a violent one. The precise historical scenario has been the subject of debate since the early twentieth century. Among the controversies have been the Mycenaean takeover at Knossos, the dating and impact of the volcanic eruption on the island of Thera (Santorini), and the date of the final destruction of the Knossos palace.

At present it seems that the Thera eruption may have occurred in the mid-seventeenth century b.c., destroying a flourishing island township that was a major player in eastern Mediterranean trade with the Aegean world. Probably it did not affect either the emerging mainland Mycenaean chiefdoms or the Second Palace states of Minoan Crete. Not long afterward, however, Mycenaean warriors invaded Crete and destroyed most of its palaces. They assumed control of the island from Knossos and several other former centers, such as Khania, adopting Minoan modes of surplus extraction and adapting Linear A into a script for their own Greek tongue, Linear B. It is probable that these rump Cretan palace centers later were burned down at the same time as the mainland Mycenaean palaces, during the thirteenth century b.c. It is unclear, however, if by then it was Mycenaeans or a resurgent Minoan elite who were in control of Crete.

Thus, through peaceful and forceful means, out of numerous petty chiefdoms arose some half dozen major Mycenaean kingdoms (mainland and Cretan), in the period 2000–1400 b.c., centered on palace towns with a corps of scribes, specialist workers in fine arts, and large, well-equipped armed forces. Mycenaean trade clearly developed beyond that of Minoan and Cycladic trade, both in scale and geographic scope. Existing exchanges with the eastern Mediterranean deepened, and there were stronger links to Italy and sporadic trade with the western Mediterranean islands and Iberia. The needs of the Aegean for working metal (copper and tin) and, equally important, the elite's appetite for raw materials and finished artifacts for prestigious display seem to have been the major stimuli. The Mycenaean palatial economy, like the Minoan, however, appeared to focus primarily on extraction of surplus foodstuffs, perishable and imperishable products (such as textiles), ceramic and metal artifacts, and labor from dependent populations within state boundaries. This allowed elite families and their retinues in major and minor centers to live in luxury and obtain limited imports.


The origins of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations have been sought in varied factors. Perhaps proximity to older civilizations, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the world of the city-states of the Levant and Anatolia, provided political and economic stimulus and organizational models lacking in more remote areas, such as the central and western Mediterranean and other parts of continental Europe. The undeniable contacts in terms of trade and political interactions offer some support for this "secondary civilization" model for the Aegean. On the other hand, the scale of economic and political exchanges appears to many scholars to be too limited to provide an adequate basis for the complexity of Minoan-Mycenaean society.

An alternative reading emphasizes the head start given to the Aegean through early colonization in the seventh millennium b.c. by incoming village farmers from the Near East. Yet this might lead to the prediction that similar civilizations would arise at appropriately spaced intervals of time farther west and north. In Spain and Portugal this model might be justified, since widespread village farming was delayed until c. 5000 b.c., and complex cultures of a distinctive local character appeared two to three thousand years later. Moreover, on Malta, the famous Temple societies developed idiosyncratically after some two thousand years of settled farming. With regions of intense farming in the south by the fifth millennium b.c., Italy did not have more than well-planned villages until the final stages of the Bronze Age in the early first millennium b.c. All these examples are complex state societies, whereas this form of complex civilization was achieved early in the course of Minoan civilization.

The concept of "environmental circumscription" might shed additional light. The idea here is that certain cultures are encouraged to adapt into more elaborate social and economic forms through being confined within geographical boundaries or struggling under constraining ecological conditions. Early Iberian complex society and the Malta Temple culture, for example, arose in the context of surprisingly stressful farming ecologies. There is a parallel in the Aegean when we consider that northern and central Greek tell societies failed to achieve state formation (where climatic and soil conditions were generally good), while southern Greece saw the evolution of the Cretan Minoan and the mainland Mycenaean and related Cycladic island civilizations (in environments with a stressful climate and low-resilience soils).

Many scholars tend to combine these elements into a complex interplay of causation: proximity to the Near East gave rise to precocious settled village farming and, later, economic and political stimulation to the development of a stratified and urban society in the Aegean. The concepts of "core-periphery" and "world system" help us model how mobilization of exchange goods, related to political alliances and the flow of prestige goods between elites, could have created, or perhaps enhanced, tendencies in the Aegean toward the elaboration of class societies and administrative central places. A more stressful environment in the southern Aegean and greater access to the Near East would differentiate its path from other regions of the Aegean, with the exception of some northern Aegean islands and the city-state of Troy on the northwest coast of Turkey. Colin Renfrew argued in the early 1970s that olive cultivation, which could have flourished in the south but not over most of the northern Aegean, was a potent element in economic growth in the Bronze Age. Although the scale and timing of large-scale olive cultivation still are disputed, such cultivation seems to have played a major role in sustaining the Mycenaean civilization of the Late Bronze Age. When better paleobotanical evidence becomes available, it may turn out that this factor acted as a significant new force in the rise of small centers of power in the southern Aegean Early Bronze Age and the emergence of the Minoan civilization of the Middle Bronze Age.

What held the Aegean Bronze Age civilizations together as regional state societies? Diverse elements can be suggested. For Cycladic island towns the village-state model may be critical—a centripetal social force (that is, one that turns a community's life intensely in upon itself), which might have been behind numerous cross-cultural small-scale polities of the city-state variety. On Minoan Crete a special emphasis on religious ritual has been offered as a kind of unifying ideology binding different classes together, although one can be somewhat skeptical of a utopian reading for such a highly stratified society. In contrast, the relatively short life and militaristic flavor of Mycenaean society encourage the view that later Homeric descriptions of unstable, aggressive, and competitive warrior elites at the head of these states may reflect actual historical memories. This variety in itself reminds us that history and prehistory are the result of interactions between partially predictable possibilities and unpredictable contingency.

See alsoThe Minoan World (vol. 2, part 5); Dark Age Greece (vol. 2, part 6).


Bintliff, John L. "Settlement and Territory." In CompanionEncyclopedia of Archaeology. Edited by Graeme Barker, Vol. 1, pp. 505–545. London: Routledge, 1999.

Chadwick, John. The Mycenaean World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Cullen, Tracey, ed. Aegean Prehistory: A Review. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America, 2001.

Dickinson, Oliver. The Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Preziosi, Donald, and Louise Hitchcock Preziosi. AegeanArt and Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Renfrew, Colin. The Emergence of Civilisation. The Cyclades and the Aegean in the Third Millenniumb.c. London: Methuen, 1972.

Wardle, K. A., and Diana Wardle. Cities of Legend: The Mycenaean World. London: Bristol Classical Press/Duckworth 1997.

John Bintliff