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MYCE´NAE sometimes MYCE´NE (Μυκῆναι; Μυκήνη Hom. Il. 4.52: Eth. Μυκηναῖος, Eth. Mycenaeus, Eth. Mycenensis: Kharváti), one of the most ancient towns in Greece, and celebrated as the residence of Agamemnon. It is situated at the north-eastern extremity of the plain of Argos upon a rugged height, which is shut in by two commanding summits of the range of mountains which border this side of the Argeian plain. From its retired position it is described by Homer (Hom. Od. 3.263) as situated in a recess (μυχφ̂) of the Argeian land, which is supposed by some modern writers to be the origin of the name. The ancients, however, derived the name from an eponymous heroine Mycene, daughter of Inachus, or from the word μύκης, for which various reasons were assigned. (Paus. 2.17.3; Steph. B. sub voce The position was one of great importance. In the first place it commanded the upper part of the great Argeian [p. 2.381]plain, which spread out under its walls towards the west and south; and secondly the most important roads from the Corinthian gulf, the roads from Phlius, Nemea, Cleonae. and Corinth, unite in the mountains above Mycenae, and pass under the height upon which the city stands. It was said to have been built by Perseus (Strab. viii. p.377 ; Paus. 2.15.4, 2.16.3), and its massive walls were believed to have been the work of the Cyclopes. Hence Euripides calls Mycenae πόλισμα Περσέως, Κυκλωπίων πόνον χερῶν (Iphig. in Aul. 1500). It was the favourite residence of the Pelopidae, and under Agamemnon was regarded as the first city in Greece. Hence it is called πολύχρυσος by Homer (Hom. Il. 7.180, 11.46), who also gives it the epithets of εὐρυάγυια (Il. 4.52) and εὐιξτίμενον πτολίεθρον (Il. 2.569). Its greatness belongs only to the heroic age, and it ceased to be a place of importance after the return of the Heracleidae and the settlement of the Dorians in Argos, which then became the first city in the plain. Mycenae, however, maintained its independence, and sent some of its citizens to the assistance of the Greeks against the host of Xerxes, although the Argives kept aloof from the common cause. Eighty Mycenaeans were present at Thermopylae (Hdt. 7.202), and 400 of their citizens and of the Tirynthians fought at Plataeae (Hdt. 9.28). In B.C. 468, the Dorians of Argos, resolving to bring the whole district under their sway, laid siege to Mycenae; but the massive walls resisted all their attacks, and they were obliged to have recourse to a blockade. Famine at length compelled the inhabitants to abandon the city; more than half of them took refuge in Macedonia, and the remainder in Cleonae and Ceryneia. (Diod. 11.65; Strab. viii. pp. 372, 377; Paus. 2.16.5, 5.23.3, 7.25.3, 8.27.1.) From this time Mycenae remained uninhabited, for the Argives took care that this strong fortress should remain desolate. Strabo, however, committed a gross exaggeration in saying that there was not a vestige of Mycenae extant in his time (viii. p. 372). The ruins were visited by Pausanias, who gives the following account of them (2.15, 16):--“Returning to the pass of the Tretus, and following the road to Argos, you have the ruins of Mycenae on the left hand. Several parts of the enclosure remain, and among them is the gate upon which the lions stand. These also are said to be the work of the Cyclopes, who built the walls of Tiryns for Proetus. Among the ruins of the city there is a fountain named Perseia, and subterraneous buildings (ὑπογαῖα οἰκοδομήματα) of Atreus and his sons, in which their treasures were deposited. There are likewise the tombs of Atreus, of his charioteer Eurymedon, of Electra, and a sepulchre in common of Teledamus and Pelops, who are said to have been twin sons of Cassandra. But Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus were buried at a little distance from the walls, being thought unworthy of burial where Agamemnon lay.”

The ruins of Mycenae are still very extensive, and, with the exception of those of Tiryns, are more ancient than those of any other city in Greece. They belong to a period long antecedent to all historical records, and may be regarded as the genuine relics of the heroic age.


B. Gate of Lions.

C. Subterraneous building, usually called the Treasury of Atreus.

D. Subterraneous building.

E. Village of Kharváti.

Mycenae consisted of an Acropolis and a lower town, each defended by a wall. The Acropolis was situated on the summit of a steep hill, projecting from a higher mountain behind it. The lower town lay on the south-western slope of the hill, on either side of which runs a torrent from east to west. The Acropolis is in form of an irregular triangle, of which the base fronts the south-west, and the apex the east. On the southern side the cliffs are almost precipitous, overhanging a deep gorge; but on the northern side the descent is less steep and rugged. The summit of the hill is rather more than 1000 feet in length, and around the edge the ruined walls of the Acropolis still exist in their entire circuit, [p. 2.382]with the exception of a small open space above the precipitous cliff on the southern side, which perhaps was never defended by a wall The walls are more perfect than those of any other fortress in Greece; in some places they are 15 or 20 feet high. They are built of the dark-coloured limestone of the surrounding mountains. Some parts of the walls are built, like those of Tiryns, of huge blocks of stone of irregular shape, no attempt being made to fit them into one another, and the gaps being filled up with smaller stones. But the greater part of the walls consists of polygonal stones, skilfully hewn and fitted to one another, and their faces cut so as to give the masonry a smooth appearance. The walls also present, in a few parts, a third species of masonry, in which the stones are constructed of blocks of nearly quadrangular shape; this is the case in the approach to the Gate of Lions. This difference in the masonry of the walls has been held to prove that they were constructed at different ages; but more recent investigations amidst the ruins of Greece and Italy has shown that this difference in the style of masonry cannot be regarded as a decisive test of the comparative antiquity of walls; and Col. Mure has justly remarked that, as there can be no reasonable doubt that the approach to the Gate of Lions is of the same remote antiquity as the remainder of the fabric, it would appear to have been the custom with these primitive builders to pay a little more attention to symmetry and regularity in the more ornamental portions of their work.

The chief gate of the Acropolis is at the NW. angle of the wall. It stands at right angles to the adjoining wall of the fortress, and is approached by a passage 50 feet long and 30 wide, formed by that wall and by another wall exterior to it. The opening of the gateway widens from the top downwards; but at least two-thirds of its height are now buried in ruins. The width at the top of the door is 9 1/2 feet. This door was formed of two massive uprights, covered with a third block, 15 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 6 feet 7 inches high in the middle, but diminishing at the two ends. Above this block is a triangular gap in the masonry of the wall, formed by an oblique approximation of the side courses of stone, continued from each extremity of the lintel to an apex above its centre. The vacant space is occupied by a block of stone, 10 feet high, 12 broad, and 2 thick, upon the face of which are sculptured two lions in low relief, standing on their hind-legs, upon either side of a covered pillar, upon which they rest their fore-feet. The column becomes broader towards the top, and is surmounted with a capital, formed of a row of four circles, enclosed between two parallel fillets. The heads of the animals are gone, together with the apex of the cone that surmounted the column. The block of stone, from which the lions are sculptured, is said by Leake and other accurate observers to be a kind of green basalt; but this appears to be a mistake. We learn from Mure (Tour in Greece, vol. ii. p. 324) that the block is of the same palombino, or dove-coloured limestone, of which the native rock mainly consists, and that the erroneous impression has been derived from the colour of the polished surface, which has received from time and the weather a blueish green hue. The column between the lions is the customary symbol of Apollo Agyieus, the protector of doors and gates. (Müller, Dor. 2.6.5.) This is also proved by the invocation of Apollo in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1078, 1083, 1271), and the Electra of Sophocles (1374), in both of which tragedies the scene is laid in front of this gate.


It has been well observed that this pair of lions stands to the art of Greece somewhat in the same relation as the Iliad and the Odyssey to her literature; the one, the only extant specimens of the plastic skill of her mythical era, the other, the only genuine memorials of its chivalry and its song. The best observers remark that the animals are in a style of art peculiar to themselves, and that they have little or nothing of that dry linear stiffness which characterises the earlier stages of the art of sculpture in almost every country, and present consequently as little resemblance to the Archaic style of the Hellenic works of a later period as to those of Egypt itself. “The special peculiarities of their execution are a certain solidity and rotundity amounting to clumsiness in the limbs, as compared with the bodies. The hind-legs, indeed, are more like those of elephants than lions; the thighs, especially, are of immense bulk and thickness. This unfavourable feature, however, is compensated by much natural ease and dignity of attitude. The turning of the body and shoulders is admirable, combining [p. 2.383]strength with elegance in the happiest proportions. The bellies of both are slender in comparison with the rest of the figure, especially of the one on the right of the beholder. The muscles, sinews, and joints, though little detailed, are indicated with much spirit. The finish, both in a mechanical and artistical point of view, is excellent; and in passing the hand over the surface, one is struck with the smooth and easy blending of the masses in every portion of the figure.” (Mure, vol. ii. p. 171.)

Besides the great Gate of Lions, there was a smaller gate or postern on the northern side of the Acropolis, the approach to which was fortified in the same manner as that leading to the great gate. It is constructed of three great stones, and is 5 feet 4 inches wide at the top.

Near the Gate of Lions the wall of the lower city may be traced, extending from N. to S. In the lower town are four subterraneous buildings, which are evidently the same as those described by Pausanias, in which the Atreidae deposited their treasures. Of these the largest, called by the learned the “Treasury of Atreus,” and by the Greek ciceroni the “Grave of Agamemnon,” is situated under the aqueduct which now conveys the water from the stream on the northern side of the Acropolis to the village of Kharváti. (See Plan, C.) this building is in nearly a perfect state of preservation. It is approached by a passage now in ruins, and contains two chambers. The passage leads into a large chamber of a conical form, about 50 feet in width and 40 in height; and in this chamber there is a doorway leading into a small interior apartment. The ground-plan and a section of the building are figured in the Dict. of Antiq. p. 1127. The doorway terminating the passage, which leads into the large, chamber, is 8 feet 6 inches wide at the top, widening a little from thence to the bottom. “On the outside before each door-post stood a semi-column, having a base and capital not unlike the Tuscan order in profile, but enriched with a very elegant sculptured ornament, chiefly in a zigzag form, which was continued in vertical compartments over the whole shaft. Those ornaments have not the smallest resemblance to anything else found in Greece, but they have some similitude to the Persepolitan style of sculpture.” (Leake, Morea, vol. ii. p. 374.) There are remains of a second subterraneous building near the Gate of Lions (Plan, D); and those of the two others are lower down the hill towards the west.

There has been considerable discussion among modern scholars respecting the purpose of those subterraneous buildings. The statement of Pausanias, that they were the treasuries of the Atreidae, was generally accepted, till Mure published an essay in the Rheinisches Museum for 1839 (vol. vi. p. 240), in which he endeavoured to establish that all such buildings were the family vaults of the ancient heroes by whom they were construeted. In the great edifice at Mycenae he supposes the inner apartment to have been the burial-place, and the outer vault the heroum or sanctuary of the deceased. This opinion has been adopted by most modern scholars, but has been combated by Leake, who adheres to the ancient doctrine. (Peloponnesiaca, p. 256.) The two opinions may, however, be to some extent reconciled by supposing that the inner chamber was the burial-place, and that the outer contained the arms, jewels, and other ornaments most prized by the deceased. It was the practice among the Greeks in all ages for the dead to carry with them to their tombs a portion of their property; and in the heroic ages the burial-places of the powerful rulers of Mycenae may have been adorned with such splendour that the name of Treasuries was given to their tombs. There is, indeed, good reason for believing, from the remains of brazen nails found in the large chamber of the “Treasury of Atreus,” that the interior surface of the chamber was covered with brazen plates.

At the foot of the lower town stands the modern village of Kharváti. (Leake, Morea, vol. ii. p. 365, seq.; Mure, Tour in Greece, vol. ii. p. 163, seq.; Curtius, Peloponnesos, vol. ii. p. 400, seq.)

hide References (15 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (15):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.65
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.202
    • Herodotus, Histories, 9.28
    • Homer, Iliad, 11.46
    • Homer, Iliad, 4.52
    • Homer, Iliad, 7.180
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.17.3
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.23.3
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.15.4
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.16.3
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.16.5
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 7.25.3
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8.27.1
    • Homer, Iliad, 2.569
    • Homer, Odyssey, 3.263
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