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The first Greek civilization: from the 16th century BC

The discovery that Linear B is a Greek script places Mycenae at the head of the story of Greek civilization. Its right to this place of honour is reinforced in legend and literature. The supposed occupants of the Mycenaean palaces are the heroes of Homer's Iliad.

Archaeology reveals the rulers of these early Greeks to have been as proud and warlike as Homer suggests.

Their fortress palaces are protected by walls of stone blocks, so large that only giants would seem capable of heaving them into place. This style of architecture has been appropriately named Cyclopean, after the Cyclopes (a race of one-eyed giants encountered by Odysseus in the Odyssey). The walls at Tiryns, said in Greek legend to have built by the Cyclopes for the legendary king Proteus, provide the most striking example.

At Mycenae it is the gateway through the walls which proclaims power, with two great lions standing above the massive lintel.

Royal burials at Mycenae add to the impression of a powerful military society. The tombs of the 16th century (known as 'shaft graves' because the burial is at the bottom of a deep shaft) contain a profusion of bronze swords and daggers, of a kind new to the region, together with much gold treasure, including death masks of the kings.

By the 14th century the graves themselves become more in keeping with the status of their occupants, with the development of the tholos or 'beehive' style of tomb. The most impressive is the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, with its high domed inner chamber (independently pioneered in Neolithic western Europe 2500 years previously).

The earliest known suit of armour comes from a Mycenaean tomb, at Dendra. The helmet is a pointed cap, cunningly shaped from slices of boar's tusk. Bronze cheek flaps are suspended from it, reaching down to a complete circle of bronze around the neck. Curving sheets of bronze cover the shoulders. Beneath them there is a breast plate, and then three more circles of bronze plate, suspended one from the other, to form a semi-flexible skirt down to the thighs. Greaves, or shinpads of bronze, complete the armour.

The Mycenaean warrior's weapons are a bronze sword and a bronze-tipped spear. His shield is of stiff leather on a wooden frame. Similar weapons are used, several centuries later, by the Greek hoplites.

Trade and conquest: 13th - 12th century BC

By the 13th century Mycenaean rulers control to varying degrees the whole of the Peloponnese, together with the eastern side of mainland Greece as far north as Mount Olympus, the large islands of Crete and Rhodes and many smaller islands. This is indeed a civilization which spreads around and through most of the Aegean.

Mycenaeans trade the length of the Mediterranean, from the traditional markets of the eastern coasts to new ones as far away as Spain in the west. They also have long-range trading contacts with Neolithic societies in the interior of Europe.

In the latter half of the 13th century, according to well-established oral tradition, the rulers of Mycenaean Greece combine forces to assault a rich city on the other side of the Aegean Sea. The city is Troy. Some four centuries later the oral tradition will be written down as the Iliad.

In Homer's poem it takes many years before Troy is finally subdued. If there is truth in this, the war perhaps fatally weakens the Greeks. Certainly archaeology reveals that the successful Mycenaean civilization comes to an abrupt end not very much later - in about 1200 BC.

The sudden destruction of Mycenaean palaces in Greece is part of a wider pattern of chaos in the eastern Mediterranean. As far away as Egypt, the pharaohs fight off invasion by raiders whom they describe as people 'from the sea'. It is a mystery, then as now, exactly where these predators come from.

The most likely answer is the southern and western coasts of Anatolia. The rulers of Anatolia, the Hittites, are among their victims. So also are the communities of the eastern Mediterranean, where some of the Sea Peoples settle - to become known as the Philistines.

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