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The Mycenaeans were among the first people to settle in Greece and ultimately would set the stage of much of Greek Culture for the centuries to follow, from mythology to the tales of Homer.

Rise of the Mycenaeans

While the Mycenaean people may have been the first literate culture to settle mainland Greece, they are not the first literate culture in the Greek world. Instead, that honor goes to the Minoan people, from the island of Crete. The Minoans were established as a civilization 4,700 years ago, making their culture just as old as the first pyramids in Egypt. The Minoans built a considerable society based on trade, and no doubt one of the first customer bases that the Minoans found were the people living in Greece.However, these early Greeks were not completely commercially minded. Instead, like so many other ancient cultures, they thrived off of conquest. Therefore, it is important to note that the Mycenaean Greeks were a culture that celebrated warfare, not commercial activities.

As wealth has always been a powerful motivator for conquest, eventually the Minoans were conquered by the Mycenaean Greeks. This conquest came at a weak period of Minoan culture as tectonic issues had meant that the volcanoes at the core of so many Minoan sites erupted. Interestingly, many believe that the tale of the Minoans leaving an advanced culture, spurred on by destruction of their homeland, heavily informed the story of Atlantis.

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Characteristics of Civilization

War came to define much of the Mycenaean culture, and these earliest Greeks left a surprising legacy to prove it.

It has only been recently that linguists have been able to read any of Linear B, the language of the Mycenaean Greeks, which they borrowed from the Minoans.However, earlier Greek writers had spoken heavily about the impact of Mycenaean culture on their own lives. Most notable of any of these Greeks was technically not a writer, but instead an oral poet named Homer. Homer’s works are among the most treasured in Greek literary canon. In Homer’s ‘The Iliad’, the story of the Mycenaean conquest of Troy is told in particularly gruesome detail. It seems that it wasn’t only with Homer that much of Greek mythology found its highest form under the Mycenaeans.

Indeed, many gods were raised from the status of local protector gods to full members of the Greek Pantheon.Not surprising, soon stories were introduced, explaining how each of the new additions found the respect of the mortals on Earth. Most notably, Athena won the respect of Athens, while Poseidon lost it, because Athena brought forth a fresh water spring on the Acropolis, whereas Poseidon did not. Of course, these stories are mere constructions on the past, but do serve a purpose in highlighting cultural development.Yet, it wasn’t just language that the Mycenaeans borrowed from the Minoans. Additionally, the most dominant forms of art for the period, namely frescoes painted onto walls, were directly adopted from the palaces of Crete, where Minoan artisans had perfected the technique centuries earlier.Additionally, the Minoan emphasis on trade soon became more and more important to the Mycenaeans.

While the Mycenaeans would never fully abandon conquest as an important aspect of their societies, trade became increasingly important. Not surprisingly, weapons were popular, as Bronze Greek swords, dated to the Mycenaean period, have been found as far away as England and Iraq.

Downfall

Despite the war-like culture of the Mycenaean Greeks, by 1200 BC, a new phenomenon was emerging that would prove to be devastating to many cultures throughout the Mediterranean world. In what is known as the Bronze Age Collapse, many empires were either destroyed or weakened by a perfect storm of crop failures, astronomical events that caused people to lose faith in their leaders, and barbarian invasion. In Greece, the barbarians in question were linguistically Greek and were known as the Dorians. They brought a new dialect to Greece once the culture managed to pull itself out of this new dark age.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, the rise, characteristics, and fall of the Mycenaean Greeks were discussed.

The Mycenaeans were originally a war-like people that had emerged out of earlier settlement from interaction with the Minoans, a Greek-speaking group from Crete. Ultimately, the Mycenaean Greeks would conquer the Minoans and become culturally dominant. A massive part of this cultural dominance was from the work of Homer, whose epics were the cornerstone of Greek literature. Also culturally important during this period was the development of Greek mythology into a more integrated whole.

Finally, the Mycenaeans were destroyed during the Bronze Age Collapse.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished this lesson you should be able to:

  • Name the first literate Greek cultures
  • Describe the Mycenaean civilization and its characteristics
  • Explain the impact of Minoan culture on the Mycenaean Greeks
  • Recall the effect of the Bronze Age Collapse on the Mycenaeans

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