Theories on the Fall of Mycenae

A brief overview of Greek History. Part 4- Fall of Mycenae.

Unlike the Minoans or the inhabitants of the Cyclades, we don’t have a well-timed volcano eruption to explain the fall of Mycenae. But we do know that the civilization did fall, and paved the rise of the Hellenes were so familiar with today. So here’s a list of some of the most prevalent explanations for the demise of Mycenae.

1: The Dorian Invasion.

The one backed by Greek sources, 19th-century scholars and the one that I personally subscribe to. Herodotus and Euripides talk about the sons of Heracles returning to the island and invading the Peloponesse. According to this theory, a Hellenic, or Hellenistic people invaded the most of mainland Greece, sacking many cities and burning down Mycenae, and eventually founding (or appropriating) the cities of Corinth and Sparta. This is backed by ancient sources, the fact that there’s a linguistic difference between the Ionic/Aeolic dialect (Athenians, Thebes Cyclades, Miletus) and the Doric Dialects (Sparta and Corinth).

2: The Sea Peoples.

Remember the Philistines? Well, they were active around the same time as the fall of Mycenae and it wasn’t just the ancient Israelites who had to deal with them. The great and rival empires of the Hattusa and the Egypt both struggled to drive back groups of mysterious sea invaders who eventually settled down in southern Palestine. It’s quite possible that the Myceneans broke down under the same pressure as well. This theory is eminently compatible with the previous one since it’s also possible that the Philistines /were/ the Myceneans who had been displaced by the Dorian invasion. There certainly is a similarity between early Philistine and Mycenean pottery.

3: Hierarchy

Another theory postulates that the strict hierarchy of the Myceneans collapsed after famines impoverished the lower classes. Personally, this strikes me as reading a few too many modern assumptions into the ancient world though it would explain the more egalitarian nature of Greek world (egalitarian meaning egalitarian for free men of noble birth, but that’s pretty egalitarian by the standards of the ancient world).

4: Birth rate and infrastructure.

I haven’t been able to get that much data on this one, so I assume it’s a fringe opinion, but I do remember my Greek History Professor, bringing this up as an example of some of the ludicrous theories that spring out of the minds of desperate academics looking for tenure, According to him the theory postulates that the birth rates got so high the Myceneans were unable to maintain their infrastructure. “It’s ridiculous,” he said, “So we have too many babies and now we’re not able to maintain the roads!”

There are also theories that blame climate change, but I’m not sure how seriously one can possibly take those. Every era turns up a certain crop of scholars who project the problems of their own era onto the past.


A brief overview of Greek History. Part 3- Mycenae.


While the Minoans entered their decaying years, a civilization sprung up on the Peloponnese (the peninsulaish area on the Greek map). The Myceneans were a powerful, prosperous, nation, that built large cities well inland. This is the civilization that many people think Homer is talking about when he talks about his Acheans (what Homer calls his Greeks in the Trojan war).

Like the Minoans, the Myceneans were centered around one, powerful, absolute Monarch. Unlike the Minoans, we’ve deciphered their language. The man who decoded it, was, funnily enough, a professional architect named Michael Ventris. Classicism was a hobby of his, and as a linguist, he was entirely self-taught. Thanks to him, we have a rather detailed understanding of how the Mycenean civilization worked.

And, to be perfectly frank, the Myceneans almost seemed to have more in common with Imperial China as they did the Greeks that followed them. The one. absolute Monarch, who like the Minoans, ruled from an immense palace, surrounded himself with a massive bureaucracy of scribes, clerks and various other sorts of middle men. Writing was used, not so much for poetry or history, as for inventory. So while know very little about what the Mycenean kings /did/, but we do know that a certain cow, belonged to a certain individual in a certain town.

Everything else must be inferred from archaeological clues, and Homer (if Homer is truly accurate and speaking of the Mycenean period). Everything else must be inferred from the archaeological data we have. And goodness the sorts of data we have! Massive lions gate structures and strange bee hive tombs. The Mycenean prowess with Masonry wouldn’t find it’s equal in Greece until the classical era. We can infer from the inventory and the massive structures, that, by the standards of the next few centuries, the Myceneans were very rich.

Eventually, the civilization of the Myceneans ended. But the cause of that destruction is so controversial and rife with so many theories, I’ll leave that subject to the next post.

A brief overview of Greek History. Part 2- Cyclades.

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A word which might be familiar to you all is the word Archipelago. Nowadays, it’s used to denote any large set of connected islands (or if you play the Civilization games an entire world of connected islands) but originally the term was reserved for a group of islands which lie in the Aegean sea, between Hellas (Greece) and Anatolia (Turkey).

These sun baked islands in the Aegean were resource rich, filled with wheat, grazing land for animals, and fishing. During the early bronze age, the inhabitants traded their distinctive volcanic glass around the Aegean and got things in return. We have traces of Minoan pottery in their settlements.

The most distinctive element of the Cyclades were their idols. Today, they stand as pale, weird figures that resemble nothing so much as alien abductors. They weren’t like that when they were first created. Traces of paint tells us they were once brightly coloured. It’s only the passages of time that has rendered them the eyeless creatures they are today.

As time went on Cycladic culture eventually lost its early distinctiveness. Around the height of Minoan influence, their art becomes Minoan and when Mycenae comes into its own, their art becomes Mycenean. The volcanic eruption at Thera destroyed what little distinctiveness they had left. From then on the Cyclades simply become an extension of the dominant Greek culture.

Later on, the islands of Delos and Naxos would play a prominent role in Greek History. Delos was the location of the Temple of Apollo. Naxos had temples to temples to Apollo, Demeter and Dionysus. Naxos continued to have a strong (if complicated) relationship with Athens for the rest of Greek History.

Minoan Civilization

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I’m going to give brief history lectures in this medium a shot. Can’t say that they’ll be entertaining or good to start with. But I suppose I’ll improve with time.

A brief overview of Greek History. Part 1- Ancient Crete.

Crete is a small stream that trickles into the source of Western civilization. To call this tiny island state the source of the West would probably be an exaggeration since many of Cretes own unique contributions to the world lie extinct today. Its alphabet is currently indecipherable, its social norms alien and its civilization extinguished before the first flames of what we could call the West ever truly began.

What we know of ancient Cretan civilization stems largely from the Minoans, an ancient civilization whose glory predates even the oldest ruins of ancient civilizations of the mainland Greeks. Their society stretches back two and a half thousand years before the birth of Christ, and the ruins below the palace at Knossos speak of a pre-Minoan civilization which stretches back further still.

Sir Arthur Evans is the greatest name in the in the excavation and uncovering of the civilization of the ancient Minoans. Back in 1900, his expedition team uncovered the palace at Knossos and from there on in we’ve managed to excavate further and understand their civilization better.

Based on the evidence we have above, we know that Crete was a palace society. Regional governors and minor kings would centre all their bureaucracy, learning and government around a massive palace structure, surrounded by farms growing wheat, barley and chickpeas.

The language of the Minoans is called (somewhat unimaginatively) Linear A, and so far we’ve not been able to decode it. The fact that the Minoan language was (to the best of our knowledge) utterly unlike ancient Greek, and the fact that it was mostly used for economic transactions makes it a continuing riddle. The person who finally does manage to uncover its secrets will certainly make a name for themselves in the history of history.

Their culture was mercantile, sea based, art-loving, feminine (almost all their gods were goddesses) and financially prosperous. Their pottery can be found all over the Mediterranean, from Phoenicia to Egypt.

It is widely believed that their culture was finally destroyed by the eruption of Mount Thea, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. Literally death by Volcano.