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The Fall of the Mycenaean Civilization

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The Lion Gates at Mycenae

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Around the year 1200 BCE the Mycenaean civilization shows signs of decline. By 1100 it was extinguished. The palaces were destroyed, and their system of writing, their art, and their way of life were gone. The causes of their decline are not entirely clear. According to Greek legends, they were replaced by half-civilized Dorian invaders from the north. They spoke a different Greek dialect, and were a new wave of Greek migration. Evidence for this may be found in the legend of The Return of the Heraclidae, which recounts how the Dorians joined the Heraclidae, a Greek tribe, in an attack on the Peloponnese.

We get a glimpse of the fall of the Mycenaeans from a tablet found at the palace of Pylos. The palace was destroyed by an invasion from the sea. Most of the tablets recovered there describe preparations for the attack. The first attack involved attacks on the priests but no burning. The scribes had a chance to write about it before the 2nd attack which destroyed the palace.

The enemy grabbed all the priests from everywhere and without reason murdered them secretly by simple drowning. I am calling out to my descendants (for the sake of) history. I am told that the northern strangers continued their (terrible) attack, terrorizing and plundering (until) a short time ago. Py FR 1184 (Michael Ventris translation)

Many of the tablets found at Pylos described preparations for an attack which had obviously been expected from the direction of the sea. Michael Wood in his book In Search of the Trojan War wrote the following:

"One of the most important tablets is entitled: 'Thus the watchers are guarding the coasts' : command of Maleus at Owitono... 50 men of Owitono to go to Oikhalia, command of Nedwatas.... 20 men of Kyparssia at Aruwote, 10 Kyparissia men at Aithalewes.... command of Tros at Ro'owa: Kadasijo a shareholder, performing feudal service.... 110 men from Oikhalia to Aratuwa. Some of the last tablets written at Pylos speak of rowers being drawn from five places to go to Pleuron on the coast. A second list, incomplete, numbers 443 rowers, crews for at least fifteen ships. A much larger list speaks of 700 men as defensive troops; gaps on the tablet suggest that when complete, around 1000 men were marked down, the equivalent of a force of 30 ships".

It was all to no avail. The first attackers appear to have targeted the priests but did no burning. This allowed the scribes enough time to describe the attack on their tablets when the second wave of attackers arrived who devastated the palace with fire and beat anyone they could find. The old story that the Dorians came over land from the north and devastated the palaces may well be true, but they may have done it in cooperation with the Sea Peoples' attacks in boats. The only strangers for which we have good evidence are the Sea Peoples and their main goal was to stop the advance of the new philosophy of the jealous male gods, and not to take slaves or even to plunder, which was incidental. The attacks were successful because, like the Hittite empire, we know that the Achaean civilization came to an abrupt end. Only Athens was apparently able to ward off the attacks.

The kings of Mycenae always had to fight to retain their positions. They engaged in constant warfare with each other and the long Trojan War may have weakened their power.

The great workshops were the first to disappear. By 1200 there were no more luxurious weapons and vases. The archeological evidence is that after 1200 BC there is a massive reduction in settlement sites. When the Dorians arrived, they found an already weakened civilization, which they looted and pillaged. A dark age descended on Greece.


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