Imposing even as a ruin, Agamemnon’s city Mycenae—Homer called it “Mycenae, rich in gold”—stands on a foothill of Mount Euboea between Hagios Elias and Mount Zara near the modern village that still bears its name: Mikínai. Seat of the semilegendary Atreus, it is also rich in tragic myth. Atreus’s dynasty was cursed because he fed his brother Thyestes with his own children. His son Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to gain fair winds to take his war fleet to Troy. When he returned, his wife Clytemnestra killed him; she in turn was killed by her son, Orestes. Except on the southeast, where a steep ravine provided natural fortification, the citadel or acropolis (high city) of Mycenae was surrounded by massive and daunting walls. Parts were of polygonal masonry, with shaped stones fitted together, and the gates were built of finely dressed ashlar. But most of the defenses were built of “cyclopean” masonry, so named because the later Greeks, unable to accept that humans could have moved such huge blocks, attributed them to the mythical giant Cyclops. The true purpose of such gigantic walls is still debated by scholars: they were certainly defensive, but some suggest they may have been employed more as a show of strength. Whatever the case, for engineering audacity and skill they challenge even our modern imaginations.
The generic term “Mycenaean” is used for the Late Bronze Age (Helladic) culture that arose on the Greek mainland around 1650 b.c. and whose powerful, militaristic city-states dominated the region from 1400 until 1100 b.c. Mycenaean navies controlled the Aegean and colonized Crete, Cyprus, the Dodecanese, northern Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, Sicily, and parts of Italy. Then they seem to have outgrown their resources, and despite an attempt to secure the Black Sea grain routes by annexing Troy (sometime between 1250 and 1180 b.c.), the Mycenaean culture suffered such attrition that it was easily subsumed by the migrating Dorians a century later.
From its hilltop at an elevation of about 900 feet (270 meters), the citadel of Mycenae commanded a large, fertile hinterland and the Plain of Argos extended before it; the major route between the Bay of Argos and Corinth, Thebes, and Athens to the north passed under its ramparts. There had been neolithic and early Helladic use of the site between 3000 and 2800 b.c., but the earliest significant developments took place in the seventeenth century. Indeed, most of the surviving defenses date from after 1380 b.c., built in three major stages—ca. 1350, 1250, and 1225.
The walls of Mycenae were generally between 15 and 35 feet (4.7 and 10.7 meters) high, rising in places to 56 feet (17 meters); parts of them were as much as 46 feet (14 meters) thick. The earliest circuit (ca. 1350) enclosed the megaron (palace) precinct with all its ancillary buildings. About 100 years later the walls were extended to include the main western gate and an older grave pit close to it. Another gate, much smaller but just as cunningly designed for defense, is on the north of the citadel. Around the same time, a tunnel was built in cyclopean masonry, leading to a subterranean spring-fed cistern on the northeast side.
Impressive as they are, the walls of Mycenae pale beside the splendor of the western gate, now known as the Lion Gate (ca. 1250 b.c.), mainly because of the majestic sculpture—the earliest large relief sculpture on the Greek mainland—that crowns it. The gate had a forecourt about 50 feet long by 25 feet wide (15 by 7.5 meters). The 10-foot-square (3.5-meter) opening was formed by four massive stone blocks (a threshold, flanking pilasters, and lintel), averaging about 12 by 7 by 3 feet (3.5 by 2 by 1 meters) in size. The double gates themselves were of bronze sheathed timber. The remarkable feature was above the lintel. The corbeled triangular opening (known as a “relieving triangle”) was invented by the Mycenaeans to divert the huge loads of the upper wall masonry away from the lintel and into the jambs—a major step forward in civil engineering. Here the opening was filled by a relatively thin stone panel bearing a relief carving of two lionesses flanking or adoring a column. The composition evokes many earlier relics found on Crete, and the overt symbolism born of this agrarian culture’s emphasis on fertility should not be lost on us. From the Lion Gate, a 12-foot-wide (3.6-meter) road—Homer described the “broad streets of Mycenae”—led via a terraced ramp toward the defensible entrance of the flat-roofed megaron and its associated complex of buildings near the summit. Most of the palace has been lost.
The citadel survived an attack around 1200 b.c. only to be destroyed, possibly by invading Dorians, about a century later. The walls were not pulled down and the buildings outside, found near every Helladic acropolis, were not deserted. It seems that Mycenae was continuously occupied in some form until about 468 b.c., when the small preclassical city built on the ruins of the ancient citadel was destroyed by Argos and its population banished. The city was briefly reoccupied in the third century b.c. A new temple was built at the summit of the acropolis and the city wall repaired. There is some evidence of Roman occupation, but when the Greek traveler Pausanias visited the region around a.d. 160, he found only ruins. Serious archeological investigations began in 1841 and have continued intermittently.