The Mycenaean Society

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The Mycenaean society was a paranoid civilization, millennia before Christ, with a social hierarchy, lots of gold, and perhaps an experience of the Trojan War that ended their era. This Greek society emerged after the Minoans and before the 200-year civilization blackout.

Great ramp of Mycenae, center of Greek civilization, Peloponnese, Greece.
Mycenae lost its glory to an unknown event that could be the Trojan War or the Dorian invasion. (Image: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock)

The Mycenaean society reached glory after the Minoans lost their civilization to either a volcano or an earthquake or an unknown reason. Mycenae included many communities on the mainland and the Aegean islands from about 1650 to 1300 B.C. Despite their similarities, they had some significant differences with the Minoans.

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Minoan Vs. Mycenaean Societies

To get a better idea of societies at the time, one can compare the Minoan and Mycenaean societies. Minoans flourished for about 2000 years, from 3000 B.C. to 1100 B.C. They had multi-story houses, clay pipes leading out of the houses, paintings on the walls of houses displaying important or everyday events, and anti-earthquake reinforcements in the houses. They also had rituals that involved sacrificing children and perhaps even eating them. Their nation was slowly losing power, but when the big earthquake occurred followed by the volcano eruption 25–50 years later, their rule was over. The Minoans faced these catastrophes between 1650 and 1500. Next, the Mycenaean society took over.

The archaeological site of Mycenae near the village of Mykines, with ancient tombs, giant walls and the famous lions gate, Peloponnese, Greece
Not much is known about the daily life of Mycenaeans, but archeological evidence suggests wars and shelters were common back then. (Image: Georgios Tsichlis/Shutterstock)

Mycenae featured an impressive fortress surrounded by cultivable lands that produced corn – the Argive plain. Society was divided into those living inside and outside the fortress. One big difference with the Minoans was that Mycenae was absolutely Greek, while Minoans might not have been.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Greek Mycenaean

The Minoans had a writing system called Linear A, while Mycenaean writing was Linear B. the writing is evident from inscribed clay tablets. Some signs in Linear B represent vowels, whereas others represent vowels with consonants. Linear B was deciphered in 1952 by an architect called Michael Ventris. He used code-breaking techniques that had been developed in the Second World War to decode the writings.

However, this is not the only thing that the tablets show.

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Mycenaean Administration and Hierarchy

One tablet reads, “Kokalos repaid the following quantity of olive oil to Eumedes: 648 liters,” indicating the high degree of administrative centralization and the centralized economy. Interestingly, the bureaucracy was developed thousands of years ago to govern sophisticated societies.

As mentioned before, the fortress divided the society. The elite was living inside the fortress – the royal family, members of the priesthood, and their servants and slaves. The rest of the people were either damos or doeroi who were taken into the castle in times of war and big threats.

The damos means ‘common people’ in Mycenaean. Common people were free citizens who owned land and had civil rights, such as complaints against the superiors. The historian Rodney Castleden describes the damos as “a force to be reckoned with.”

The doeroi, on the other hand, were the slaves that could be bought and sold, both men and women. The Mycenaeans also look a bit paranoid.

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The Fortress, Shaft Graves, and the Gold

The fortress has very thick walls, suggesting the Mycenaeans were afraid of something that could attack and end their reign. They might have been a little paranoid, but it does not mean there was no danger around. Wars were not so uncommon.

Mycenaean dagger (ancient Greece). Gold-plated copper. About 1200 B.C.
The grave gifts normally included a sword and golden cup, even though swords were relatively new at the time. (Image: Olemac/Shutterstock)

Another indicator of wars back then is the shaft graves: the deep narrow shafts dug into natural rock, sometimes up to 12 feet deep, to protect royal burials from robbers. The graves include gifts such as bronze swords, often with relief decoration on the blade, and gold cups decorated with repoussé images. Repoussé images were scenes of hunting or similar events beaten into the surface. Sometimes there was a golden mask on the face of the corpse, and the body was wrapped in a thin gold foil.

Swords were newly being built back then. Sadly, even the 90 buried swords in one grave could not protect Mycenae.

The Fall of Mycenae

Between 1300–1100 B.C., almost every Mycenaean site was robbed and burned down, until in 1150 Mycenae was crushed. The reason is unknown – maybe the northern Dorian Invasion, maybe the Trojan War. If the Trojan War really happened, it was over access to the Black Sea region. Thus, the third possibility is that Mycenae had sent many fighters to the Trojan War, and the civil raiders destroyed the civilization.

Whatever the reason for the fall of Mycenae, it brought along decades of civilization blackout.

Common Questions about the Mycenaean Society

Q: What is the Mycenaean culture known for?

The Mycenaean society represents the first advanced Greek civilization in mainland Greece. They had their own palatial states, urban organization, works of art, and writing system. There was a big fortress as well in the town, which sheltered normal people sometimes.

Q: Why is the Mycenaean civilization important?

The Mycenaean society lived in Mycenae, an important prehistoric city-state in Greece. Between 1600 B.C. and 1100 B.C., this city was a center of power. They had a centralized economy and bureaucracy to govern their prosperous society. Some say they were the first Greeks.

Q: Who are the Mycenaeans, and why are they important?

Apart from being a major power between 1600 B.C. and 1100 B.C., the Mycenaean society was perhaps the first to speak and write Greek. Thus, they are sometimes called the first Greeks.

Q: What was unique about the Mycenaean civilization?

The Mycenaean society was a rich one, with a strongly-built fortress to protect its elite and shelter its normal people in times of danger. The amount of gold and metal swords found in their graves is one witness of their prosperity.

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