Mycenaean Warfare and the End of the Minoans

Warriors and warfare were glorified in Greece and much of the rest of west ern Europe during the Bronze Age.- The stories of Homer, which were written down after 1000 BCE but likely reflect earlier values, glorify the actions of the ancient warriors involved in the Trojan War. Heroes like Achilles were glorified because of their skills at warfare, and the Homeric epics describe their battles and their accoutrements of warfare in great detail. In other parts of Europe in the Bronze Age, men were buried in elaborate armor and with weapons, suggesting a glorification of warfare beyond the grave.


The great Greek epic the Iliad recounts episodes from a ten-year war between Greeks of the heroic age and the inhabitants of Troy in coastal Anatolia. It is traditionally attributed to the Greek poet Homer, who lived during the eighth century BCE, and probably builds on earlier versions of the story. Long thought to be purely myth, the story was shown to reflect a real period of Greek prehistory when, in the late nineteenth century CE, Heinrich Schliemann excavated at Mycenae and revealed the existence of the Mycenaean civilization. Some details of Homer’s epic poem are anachronistic, but many genuinely re? ect Mycenaean society. One of the most famous elements in the Iliad, the Catalogue of Ships, has been lent support by information in Linear B tablets recently discovered at Thebes. Many of the places listed as contributors to the war fleet are named in these tablets, some of them settlements no longer occupied in Homer’s day. There is a much less good ft, however, between the place names of the catalog and those of the Pylos tablets. And there is no evidence that the Trojan War itself actually took place. The fall of Troy is dated in Greek tradition to 1184 BCE. Since the late 1990s, excavations at Troy and elsewhere have been revealing a historic picture into which the Trojan War could well fit. The large city of Troy VI, which may have housed 6,000-10,000 people within a walled citadel and a walled outer town, was destroyed by an earthquake around 1300 BCE. When the Trojans rebuilt their homes (Troy VIIa), they crowded inside the citadel wall as if for protection against an external threat such as a besieging enemy. A few letters exchanged between the ruler of Troy and his overlord, the Hittite king, refer to attacks on Trojan lands during the thirteenth century BCE, in some cases explicitly by Ahhijawa (probably identifiable as the Mycenaeans). The city of Troy VIIa was destroyed around 1200 (between 1230 and 1180) BCE. Piles of slingshots in the street ready for use by the defenders and bodies, spearheads, and arrowheads in the ruins show that it fell to enemy attack. There are other possible explanations for the sack of Troy. For example, this was the period when the Sea Peoples were actively raiding, but the evidence now available shows it possible that the Iliad has its roots in genuine Mycenaean history.


The Mycenaeans emerged on the southern Greek mainland in the seventeenth century BCE, when Minoan civilization was at its height. It is clear from their burials that theirs was a society in which the warrior played an important part. The most magnificent burials are those found in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, some with gold death masks. Examination of their bones shows that many had suffered injuries and skeletal stress from years of fighting. Their grave goods included plates from boar’s-tusk helmets, gold decorative breastplates, and many weapons. Among these was a dagger inlaid with a hunting scene in which warriors are shown armed with swords, bows, and spears, and carrying figure-of-eight shields or tall rectangular (tower) shields with curved sides. The dappled appearance of shields depicted in frescoes shows that they were made from ox-hides, presumably over a wooden frame. These shields were particularly suitable for single combat, where they offered a full protective screen between the combatant and his opponent, but they were less useful in a pitched battle, where attack could come from any side. Depictions on stelae marking the graves show soldiers equipped in the same style. Spearheads from the Shaft Graves and other early contexts included a type with a split shaft mounted into a shoe on either side of the blade; this soon went out of use. A more efficient type, with a socket at its base to take the shaft, was current throughout the Mycenaean period. These spears were used for thrusting; there is no certain evidence of the throwing spear frequently mentioned in Homer’s Iliad.

Later Mycenaean frescoes and depictions on pottery show that many of these armaments continued in use, and new ones were added including greaves (shin guards) and corselets (cuirasses). A smaller round shield more suitable for maneuvering in pitched battle replaced the earlier types. A set of armor discovered near Midea (the Dendra Panoply) included a helmet, bronze greaves, and a corselet made of overlapping bronze half-rings and plates covering torso, shoulders, neck, and the tops of the arms, combining protection with flexibility. These seem to have been stitched to a linen garment, probably well padded, while the helmet originally consisted of a leather cap to which were added slices of boar’s tusk arranged in rows that curved right and left alternately and ear guards made of bronze. Helmets usually had a chin strap and might also have a neck guard. Boar’s-tusk helmets would have been restricted to the elite, since each required the tusks from 20 to 40 boars; ordinary soldiers wore helmets and body armor of leather or thick layers of linen to which bronze disks might be sewn as reinforcement.

Swords used by the Mycenaeans changed through time. In the Shaft Grave era, a narrow rapier was used: this was hafted with a very short tang that would easily have broken, and examples with longer tangs were also developed. The rapier was designed for thrusting into the body of an enemy or hunted animal. During the fourteenth century this was replaced by the two-edged slashing sword with an integral hilt to which a handle was fastened with nails. Arrows in this period were tipped with bronze heads, often with tangs; earlier arrowheads had been made of flint or obsidian.

Stelae from the shaft graves, terra-cotta models, and pottery decoration show that the elite drove chariots with four-spoked wheels drawn by a pair of horses; chariots, dismantled chariots, and chariot wheels are among the items in storage listed on the Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos. These allowed the aristocracy to move with speed as military messengers and to travel in style to the battlefield and, when necessary, in retreat from it; it is unlikely that they were used as mobile fighting platforms.

On a larger scale, ships were used as transports, but the depictions of two ships on a vase from Iolkos show that they were fitted with a ram and thus were also used offensively. A few late Mycenaean sherds may depict sea battles. The Pylos tablets refer to musters of troops as rowers for naval defense. Ships seem generally to have been propelled by oars but also had sails for use when winds were favorable.

By 1450 BCE the Minoans, who had strongly influenced the Mycenaeans in earlier centuries, were in decline. Of the palaces and towns, all but Knossos were destroyed at this time. The cause is still uncertain: it may have been internal strife or natural disasters, such as the earthquakes that frequently troubled the region, or the Mycenaeans may have been implicated. If they were not, they certainly stepped into the power vacuum left by the Minoan collapse, establishing themselves at Knossos sometime around or after 1450 and gradually taking over the eastern Mediterranean trade network that the Minoans had so successfully operated. Warrior graves on Crete, at Knossos, and elsewhere, were probably the burials of Mycenaeans, complete with swords, spears, and helmets. Minoan life on Crete nevertheless continued, though with a strong Mycenaean veneer. Around 1375-1350 BCE Knossos was destroyed, perhaps by the Mycenaeans, and the center of power on the island shifted to Khania in the west.

During the fourteenth century BCE, palaces emerged on the mainland, often on citadels with impressive walls that in some cases were constructed of massive stone blocks (cyclopean masonry). These may initially have been intended as much to impress as to defend, but in the thirteenth century many walls were extended to enclose far larger areas, and defensive measures were added. At Mycenae, for example, the extensions included a bastion with a sally port and a subterranean passage to an underground cistern, giving the inhabitants access to water if besieged. Similar arrangements for access to water were made at Tiryns and Athens, and at Tiryns the extended walls contained corbelled passages and storage chambers, again suggesting provision against a siege. Frescoes and decorated vessels portray sieges, with warriors fighting outside the walls-watched by women at the window- and slain defenders tumbling from the walls. Many of the palaces were destroyed by fire around 1200 BCE, perhaps as a result of social unrest or internecine conflict.

At Pylos in coastal southwest Peloponnese, however, the enemy came from the sea and may well have been raiders belonging to the Sea Peoples who were wreaking destruction in the eastern Mediterranean around this time. One of their victims may have been Crete: the remaining centers were destroyed, and the inhabitants fled to the hills where they established impoverished refuge settlements. At Pylos was found an archive of Linear B tablets covering the palace’s final year; a set of five tablets (headed “Thus the watchers are guarding the coastal regions”) deals with the provisions for coastal defense. Eight hundred men were deployed in groups along the coast; their purpose, it seems, was to give the palace early warning of any imminent attack from the sea, presumably so that a large force could be deployed to where danger threatened. Despite these precautions, the palace was sacked and burned, and the kingdom was largely abandoned. Some Mycenaeans who survived the troubles of this period fled to start a new life in Cyprus or farther afield; others, in small numbers, reoccupied many of the towns and citadels, although they did not refortify them. But the glories of Mycenaean society were over.

Bibliography Chadwick, John. The Mycenaean World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Dickinson, Oliver. The Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Fitton, J. Lesley. The Minoans. London: British Museum Press, 2002. Palmer, Leonard R. Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in the Light of the Linear B Tablets. 2nd rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1965. Schofeld, Louise. The Mycenaeans. London: British Museum Press, 2007. Taylour, Lord William. The Mycenaeans. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983


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