Standing atop the citadel, it was easy to see how the rulers of Mycenae could command the surrounding Argive plain, a self-contained world of rich agriculture and high pasturelands, walled off by mountains and easily defended passes.
Their city dominated the overland routes from the southern Peloponnese to the Isthmus of Corinth and the rest of the Greek mainland. Well-fortified dependencies of Tiryns and Argos were visible in the hazy distance, connecting this realm by sea to the larger Mediterranean world. The riches of Egypt and Crete must have flowed through here, prompting the poet Homer to describe Mycenae as being “rich in gold.”
But it was difficult to believe that Tomoko and I were standing in the very same place where Agamemnon looked out over the rolling hills of Argos from his megaron, and where his warriors gathered for their legendary assault on Troy. One tiny hilltop didn’t feel large enough to contain the sort of greatness that spawned stories which are still read today.
The Mycenaean civilization reached its height between the 15th and 12th centuries BC. The people who occupied this bleak hilltop citadel crafted golden ornaments with an unrivalled delicacy and grace, and the burial pits excavated here were filled with exquisite jewellery, fragile gold chains, pins, and death masks of beaten gold.
The most spectacular artifact to come out of Mycenae is the so-called Mask of Agamemnon, heated and hammered from a single gold sheet, and then carefully chiseled to reflect the features of the long-vanished face it had covered. But, of course, this was only the name its discoverer Heinrich Schliemann gave to it when he excavated Grave Circle A in 1876. We don’t know whose face this is staring at us from the depths of the past. Modern research has placed it some 300 years before the Trojan War.
Did the steadfast Agamemnon of Homer really exist? There are no historical records of a Mycenaean king of that name, but this hilltop acropolis did mark the centre of a prosperous city in the Bronze Age.
I looked down from the palace quarter at dark green orange groves heavy with fruit ripe for the morning juicers of Europe. And then I climbed down a corbeled passage to stare up at those walls from below, imagining how startling they must have been to a Bronze Age trader confronted with such power.
But even the most powerful enchantment cannot defy fate. A period of night would settle over this region, bringing the Mycenaean civilization to a sudden end. We know it today as the Bronze Age collapse.
Between 1200 and 1150 BC, the once mighty kingdoms of the Aegean and Anatolia, the Hittite Empire of Mesopotamia, and the Egyptian Empire in Syria and Canaan were all destroyed suddenly and violently. Trade routes were broken, literacy and culture were extinguished, great cities were abandoned, and palace economies were replaced by scattered village cultures in a “dark age” that spanned some 400 years.
Mycenae was old even to the Greeks who built the Parthenon in the 5th century BC. When they happened upon these long-abandoned walls, they thought they must have been raised by giants. Only the Cyclopes could have hefted those stones. When we entered Mycenae through the Lion Gate, I came to believe in Cyclopes, too.
Sites like this were places of legend, and those who came later populated them with heroes. I can understand why a civilization laid low would need an Agamemnon to remind them that they had once reached greatness.
To the Greeks, heroes acted as intermediaries between men and the gods. Men faded to insubstantial shadows — to shades — when death took hold, but heroes retained their original qualities. They lived on, in a sense, because they were larger than life.
If you grew up in 1970’s Canada, you probably watched reruns of The Mighty Hercules, like I did. Heracles strode the animated stage of my childhood lunch hours with his annoying centaur sidekick Newton. He slew the nine-headed Lernean Hydra, diverted rivers to clean the Augean stables in a day, and strangled the dreaded Nemean lion, whose skin was impenetrable to arrows. The places connected with his adventures still exist in the Peloponnese, and they still bear their ancient names. Nemea was just down the road.
We celebrated the defeat of the Nemean lion that evening by broaching a bottle of retsina. This most original and startling of wines has been produced in Greece for over two thousand years. Retsina was created by accident when winemakers coated their jugs with pine-tar to prevent oxygen from spoiling the vintage, and the taste of that tar seeped into the wine. The Romans began using airtight barrels from the 3rd century AD, but this pungent style of wine never fell out of favour in Greece, perhaps because it pairs so well with the cuisine.
Bad retsina is harsh, with strong turpentine notes; so harsh that you could be forgiven for assuming you were drinking Pine-Sol furniture polish. But done well, this crisp white wine is followed by a sharp and semi-startling Aleppo pine resin aftertaste that fades to lemon.
After consuming several glasses of it, you will find yourself fading out, too.
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2018