After our recent video on Knossos, the largest of the Minoan “palaces”, we got a lot of possitive feedback and I was very happy to be invited back by Invicta to talk some more about Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and the way that it depicts ancient Greece. We decided to stick to the Bronze Age, but moved our gaze further north, to the Peloponnese, and took a closer look at the game’s depiction of the ancient city of Mycenae.
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If you’ve been reading Ancient World Magazine over the past few months, you ought to be familiar with the Aegean Bronze Age. Minoan culture flourished during the first half of the second millennium BC, more or less the period known as the Middle Bronze Age. Towards the end of this period, another complex society developed on the Greek mainland that reached its zenith during the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1700 to 1100/1000 BC.
This mainland culture, which, like the Minoan civilization on Crete, was centred on what we refer to as palaces, has been dubbed “Mycenaean” to distinguish it from later Greek culture. I talk about how this culture was developed (and named) in the video, so I won’t bore you with the details here. An important point to reiterate, however, is that the term “Mycenaean”, like “Minoan”, is a modern convention to refer to a particular archaeological culture, rather than specific peoples as such.
Mycenaean culture is encountered mostly in southern Greece (the Peloponnese), as well as in Central Greece (notably Attica and Boeotia) up to the south of Thessaly (e.g. Iolcus and Dimini). As detailed in the video (and also in my summary of the discoveries by Heinrich Schliemann here), Greek mythology looms large in the earliest interpretations of the archaeological remains of the Bronze Age civilizations of the Aegean.
Hence, Mycenae is regarded as the palace of Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek army in Homer’s Iliad, while the Mycenaean complex of structures at Pylos in Messenia is referred to as the “palace of Nestor”, named after the oldest and wisest of the Greek kings who sailed for Troy. Mycenaean Iolcus is connected with Jason, who was the leader of the Argonauts, while Thebes is naturally associated with Cadmus, the legendary founder of the city.
I’ve written before about the historicity of Homer, but to put it very briefly, there are elements in the story of the Trojan War that do indeed seem to stretch back to Mycenaean times. These elements are mostly limited to the political background of the Iliad in particular. Mycenae was, in the first millennium, a small town that was eventually destroyed by Argos in 468 BC, and never rose to the position of prominence that it obviously enjoyed in the Late Bronze Age. Homer, who’s floruit is dated to ca. 700 BC, likely made Agamemnon the commander-in-chief of the Greeks because the basic framework of the story he was telling had been handed down through the centuries as part of a long oral tradition with roots in the Bronze Age.
But there’s no sign in the Homeric epics of the palace bureaucracy that seems to have been an integral part of Mycenaean society. The Mycenaeans adopted from the Minoans the custom of recording information on clay tablets, using a script derived from Minoan Linear A, called Linear B by Arthur Evans. Linear B was deciphered in the 1950s and was used to record an early form of Greek. In Homer, writing is rare and described in mystical terms, as if it was something almost alien to Homer.
I won’t go too far into the historicity of the Trojan War and the connections between Greek myth and the Bronze Age, but rest assured that it’s a topic that we’ll revisit in the not-too-distant future. There’s certainly plenty to talk about, including the so-called Ahhiyawa letters, which record communications between the Hittite rulers and a king of “Ahhiyawa” (Achaeans?), who is almost certainly a Mycenaean ruler of some sort. But again, we’ll leave that for another time.
The palace of Agamemnon
If you’ve watched the video on Knossos, it won’t surprise you that the Bronze Age is not Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’s forte. As with Knossos, the game presents Mycenae as a decayed Mycenaean citadel, despite the fact that much of the superstructure of the buildings on the hill on which the city is founded consisted of rather perishable mudbrick that would never have survived the many centuries that separate the heyday of Mycenae from ca. 431 BC.
Following the Minoan chronological scheme, the Mycenaean era can be divided into three main periods: the “Early Palatial” period (end of Middle Helladic down to the end of Late Helladic II), the “Palatial” period (Late Helladic IIIA and IIIB, or roughly the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries), and the “Postpalatial” period (Late Helladic IIIC and Submycenaean, or ca. 1200 to 1050 BC).
The evidence for the Early Palatial period consists mostly of burials. Grave Circle A, which is the first area where Schliemann started excavating in the nineteenth century, dates from the end of the Middle Helladic period and Late Helladic I, or early in the Early Palatial period. He discovered six Shaft Graves here that were rich in finds, even outstripping the wealth of objects retrieved from the more recently discovered “Griffin Warrior Tomb”. Grave Circle A is represented in the game and the perimeter, which consists of a large collection of stone slabs, is accurate, but the deep tomb within isn’t. The Shaft Graves were fairly simple shafts – as the name suggests – dug to a depth of at most 4 metres and used to bury a number of individuals, who likely had kinship ties.
A major difference between the Mycenaean palaces on the mainland during the Palatial period and the earlier Minoan palaces in Crete is that the former are (usually) situated on rocky hills and protected by strong fortifications. They are often strategically located, well-defended citadels. In fact, the thing you’ll notice right away on approaching the site are the massive fortification walls. Three phases in their construction can be recognized archaeologically. The earliest fortifications at Mycenae date to Late Helladic IIIA2 to IIIAB1; conventionally, this first phase of wall-building is dated ca. 1350 BC. The second stage of the fortifications at Mycenae is generally dated to the middle of the thirteenth century, or Late Helladic IIIB1 to IIIB2; in absolute terms, around 1250 BC. During this stage, the Lion Gate was constructed that I talk about in the video, and the walls were extended to incorporate Grave Circle A within the enceinte – clearly, whoever ruled here thought it was important to be closely associated with the people buried there.
The third phase dates to shortly before 1200 BC. Following a major earthquake that caused significant damage at Mycenae, a postern gate was added, also referred to as the “North Gate”. At around a same time, a lookout post was added to the southeast corner, as well as a hidden approach from within the circuit wall to the water reservoir (i.e. the “hidden cistern”), which was filled with water from the Perseia spring further west. When I visited the site, the hidden cistern was unlit and you needed to bring your own torch if you didn’t want to slip down the many steps to the bottom! Unfortunately, the game doesn’t include the cistern; it’s only mentioned in the description.
A disappointing thing about the fortifications at Mycenae, is that the wall textures make it seem as if the entire wall is made of ashlar blocks. Ashlar consists of worked, rectangular pieces of stone, but in reality ashlar was only used around the areas of the gates. The stretch of wall around the Lion Gate, for example, consists of (large) ashlar masonry. For the rest, the Mycenaeans used “Cyclopean masonry”, which consists of roughly or unworked boulders that are stacked together, with smaller stones used to fill up any empty spaces. Often, Cyclopean walls consisted of two shells with a rubble fill.
This type of masonry is very typical of the Mycenaean period. These fortifications were so massive that in the case of Mycenae and other Bronze Age citadels, like nearby Midea and Tiryns, they remained visible throughout the centuries. Later Classical Greeks believed that the boulders used in their construction were so huge they almost certainly had to have been moved by Cyclopes (one-eyed giants).
In the video, we pass through the Lion Gate and head up the Great Ramp/Staircase to the area of the palace proper. Whereas a Minoan palace doesn’t have a particular focal point apart from the Central Court, the heart of the Mycenaean palace consists of the so-called megaron. This is a square room with four pillars around a central hearth. Access is provided by an anteroom (usually), with a porch with two columns opening up to a large(ish) court. It is thought that the ruler of the palace – known from Linear B tablets as the wanax – held court in the Megaron.
In the game, the Megaron consists of three stories (two are probably more likely), with columns in the porch that are more closely modelled after the half columns found at the Treasury of Atreus, a tomb that I’ll get to shortly. In front of the porch is not the open court that is actually there on the site, but a large and broad flight of steps instead. Many of the structures that ought to occupy the area around the court are also missing in the game; a pity.
In the video, we also briefly look at some of the other main sites in the Argolid, the region where Mycenae is located. Just outside of Mycenae is the so-called “Treasury of Atreus”, a large tholos or beehive tomb. Such monuments were fairly common in certain regions of the Bronze Age mainland, with the most impressive examples found in the Argolid and dated to the Palatial period.
The “Treasury of Atreus” is the largest of these monuments and consists of the typical beehive-shaped internal chamber constructed of ashlar masonry with a corbelled roof – in fact, with a 14.5 m diameter and a height of 13.6 m, this was the largest domed structure in the world for more than a thousand years. The Treasury of Atreus possessed a set of two bronze-sheathed doors that kept it sealed. The stone facade of the structure, which was dug into the relatively soft soil of a hill, featured relief decoration in green and red marble. A large accessway or dromos, typical of these types of tombs, had walls lined with well-made ashlar masonry.
The game also includes the “Treasury of Atreus”, but the facade looks rather different and it lacks the long dromos leading to the entrance. Most curiously, the entire tomb appears to be cut into rock. One of the characteristic traits of the Mycenaean tholos tomb is that it is dug into relatively soft earth, usually from the top of a hill, and then built up from a base of bedrock using ashlar masonry. Another, closely related type of grave is the chamber tomb, which also features a dromos and a central chamber, which are rock cut instead of stone built. Not too long ago, I wrote about some impressive examples of recently unearthed chamber tombs of the Mycenaean era.
Near the Argive coast is the fortress of Tiryns, another massive Mycenaean citadel. It is built on a low rock in the Argive plain. The coast today is about twice as far away as it was during the Palatial period; back then, it was more properly a harbour town, with archaeological evidence demonstrating that it imported goods from a large area. The overall shape of the fortress, with a lower and upper citadel, is more accurate in the game than is the case with Mycenae, but still not perfect. Here, too, the Cyclopean masonry of the real site is largely ignored, but the location of the megaron is more or less correct.
If you travel in the game from Mycenae to Tiryns, you’ll come across the Argive Heraion. This was a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Hera, who was worshipped in the nearby city of Argos. The game actually doesn’t do too bad of a job in reconstructing the sanctuary with its three terraces. The oldest temple, dating back to the seventh century BC, is rendered as a ruin, which is a little anachronistic: it wasn’t destroyed, by fire, until 423 BC, or about eight years after the game is set.
The city of Argos itself, which dominated the Argive plain, is represented in the game as a large urban sprawl, which certainly fits the ambition it had in the Classical era. Over the course of the Archaic era, Argos sought out to control all of the Argolid, destroying the town of Asine in the eighth century, claiming ownership of the Argive Heraio, and finally, in the fifth century, conquering Mycenae and Tiryns. The ancient city of Argos lies underneath the modern one, which has hampered archaeological research, but its struggle for control of the plain can be traced fairly accurately in both the archaeological and historical sources.
The end of Mycenae
The end of the Mycenaean citadel came about as a result of widespread fires in ca. 1200 BC. However, Mycenae was swiftly re-occupied during the subsequent Postpalatial period. There’s evidence for the existence of possible new occupation of the palace area. The House of the Warrior Vase, excavated by Schliemann, has yielded finds that include a beautiful bronze Naue II type sword and a large krater with figurative decoration, the “Warrior Vase” after which the house is named. Mycenae continued to be occupied throughout the Early Iron Age, with traces of settlement and graves of the Geometric period found both inside and outside the walls. There is also cult activity in and around the citadel. Grave Circla A remained visible and was apparently the centre of a hero cult.
According to Diodorus (9.65), the Argives destroyed Mycenae in 468 BC after a siege. Small parts of the Mycenaean fortifications were destroyed to render them useless; the population was expelled. In the Hellenistic era, Argos established a koma at Mycenae, essentially turning it into a fortified outpost to guard the northern approach. This Hellenistic town is well known from archaeological excavations and featured a temple, fountain house, and even a theatre. Furthermore, a tower was added along the southern wall during the Hellenistic period, which may have obliterated a hypothetical Bronze Age “West Gate”.
Sadly, nothing of this later history of the site is represented in the game. As with Knossos, the game presents Mycenae as strictly a relic of the Bronze Age without any traces of more recent history, save its use as some kind of camp for game-related purposes.
There are a lot of books about the Mycenaeans, so I’ll limit myself to the ones that are most accessible, which I’ve also used in preparing this article. First and foremost is John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World (1976), which, while dated, gives a good overview with loads of references to the Linear B documents that he and Michael Ventris worked on. (Ventris, incidentally, is the man who managed to decipher the Linear B script.) Other useful books are Lord William Taylour’s The Mycenaeans (1983 ), which is a little old, but still concise and readable, and the more up-to-date The Mycenaeans (2007) by Louise Schofield.
As usual, I’d also reference Eric Cline’s The Oxford Handbook to the Bronze Age Aegean (2010), because it’s a really good volume to have on hand. For the topic of this article, you can check out Sofia Voutsaki’s chapter on the Argolid (pp. 599-613), Joseph Maran’s chapter on Tiryns (pp. 722-734), and Elizabeth French’s chapter on Mycenae (pp. 671-679). French also wrote what is perhaps the best book on Mycenae itself, Mycenae, Agamemnon’s Capital: The Site and Its Setting (2002). Her book offers a complete overview of the history of the site and features many maps, diagrams, and photos; it’s exemplary.
Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.