Mycenae: Sites, Stories and Political Structures
One thing that is becoming clear by visiting ruins and archaeological sites in Greece is that the ancient Greeks thought a lot about how what they were going to build fit into the landscape. I talked about that in my first Delphi post, and it was even more striking to me at Mycenae, where the citadel that holds the palace is set between Mt. Aghios Ilias and Mt. Zara. This first picture is the view from the top of the citadel of the valley below which stretches to the Gulf of Nafplion. When you visit, you can see why the Mycenaeans would have chosen this location: from the front, they have a view that stretches over the entire area so they could say any potential invaders from afar, and the back of the citadel is set into the crags of rock that line the lower parts of the mountains that make the citadel almost impossible to scale.
This site at Mycenae dates back to around (historians say ‘circa’ and abbreviate it with a c) 1500 BCE. Homer’s epics come out of the Mycenaean world, but it seems that the Trojan war would have been considerably later than the height of Mycenaean civilization so there might be some conflation of stories together. In the Iliad, Homer writes about the king of Mycenae, Agamemnon, who had a, shall we say, dysfunctional family, like many of the families who star in Greek epics and tragedies. Agamemnon’s grandfather was Pelops, the first hero of the Peloponnese. When Pelops was young, his father Tantalus not so kindly served him in a stew to the other gods. But Demeter rescues Pelops, “I’d recognize the taste of this shoulder anywhere,” she says. Pelops’ family learned something from this incident, which was basically, hey, you got beef? Serve up your enemy as beef. So Pelops’ kids, Atreus and Thyestes, get into it and Atreus, the father of Agamemnon, serves up Thyestes’ kids to Thyestes. Aegisthus is the only kid of Thyestes to survive, which probably wasn’t so great for the house of Atreus, as you’ll see in a minute. Agamemnon, whom Homer compares to a lion, maybe Homer was thinking of this Lion Gate entrance to the Mycenaean citadel, leads the Greeks into war because Paris took Menelaus’ wife, Helen. Actually, Paris was given Helen by Aphrodite because he chose her as the most beautiful of the gods. So they are all preparing to go into war, but the wind won’t move the sails so the ships won’t move so Agamemnon appeals to the gods and he vows to sacrifice the first thing that he sees, which turns out to be his daughter, Iphigenia.
Let’s pause here for a second. Mycenae and Mycenaean civilization is especially interesting to me as a ancient political philosopher because the palace culture of the Mycenaeans is the foil to the polis. Where the polis was a community of those who were free and equal, the palace culture of the Mycenaeans was structured more like an extended household. Everyone in the household was under the protection of the king / father / priest. So drawing the line between public and private responsibility was difficult. Agamemnon feels the responsibility to defend his community because of what might be a private matter — his sister-in-law was taken by another man — but it’s a public matter because it demonstrates the inability of the king to protect and maintain the community. Agamemnon has to get those ships off and that is his public responsibility, so sacrificing Iphigenia is maintaining his public and priestly responsibility, even though it seems to deny his responsibility as a father. But that responsibility as a father wouldn’t be able to be protected if he didn’t go off to war. So he’s stuck. I’m not trying to be sympathetic, though pity in Homer seems to be something like feeling bad that a person is in a situation where they don’t have the protection or are unable to offer the protection that it is their obligation to provide or that they need.
This row of pictures is of the Treasury of Atreus – wrongly named because it is actually a tomb, but the person who discovered it didn’t realize that. The second picture shows how it is built under the hill–you could miss it if you weren’t looking for it. The last picture is of the top of the tholos, the dome-like roof. This tomb has a little room to the side that apparently held a bunch of graves.
Thomas Pangle, in his new book Aristotle’s Teaching in the Politics, notes that Aristotle references Euripides’ tragedy, Iphigenia at Aulis when Aristotle writes, “Therefore, the poets assert, it is reasonable for Greeks to rule barbarians (Pol. 1252b8). As Pangle notes, Iphigenia says these words when she is about to be the human sacrifice to appease Artemis. She says this right after she notes her status as a woman is such that “It is better that a single man look upon the light of day than a thousand women do so.” It’s really hard not to read those lines as Iphigenia pointing out the barbarism of the Greeks and actually pointing ironically to what is not at all clear: why the Greeks think they are so different from the barbarians.
So Agamemnon comes back from war, and Clytemnestra his wife, says hey honey, why don’t you take a bath and relax, war is hard, let me help you there. And kills him in the bathtub with the help of her lover, Aegisthus, you know, the child of Thyestes who got out of the soup. There’s even a private room at Mycenae that seems to have a bath that is often pointed out as the site of Agamemnon’s murder. Of course she had to kill him because this is Greece and things get bloody and you can’t just let your husband kill your daughter just to go fight his war. Clytemnestra is not buying the oh-it’s-gotta-be-hard-for-you-to-have-all-of-these-incommensurable-responsibilities line. She says, you killed your daughter, you S.O.B., and that was wrong. Ok, so the tragedies that we have from Aeschylus that tell this story, the Oresteia cycle, are written in the Classical period in the fifth century BCE when the tensions between the personal and the public have become more manifest in the shift to political life and the question of how the rule of law can mediate these responsibilities. So the Mycenaeans themselves might not have felt this tension that becomes more explicit for the tragedians, but their story still does the work for thinking through how the personal and the political are interwoven and in tension.
One way they are in tension is that once you start killing people to avenge the person that person killed, you can expect to be subject to a cycle of revenge. Someone’s going to have to kill you to avenge the person you killed for killing the person they killed. Sure, we understand why you are killing, but if this goes on, there isn’t going to be anyone left. In the Oresteia cycle, this is where Athena and justice and the rule of law intervene to end the cycle of revenge. But first, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s kids, Orestes and Electra look at each other after their mom just killed their dad with her lover and Electra says to Orestes, you have to avenge our father’s death because that is why good sons do. So they plot together to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, and they do, and then people are like, that’s it, stop, we’re taking you to court. An intervention in the house of Atreus, and good thing, too.
So at Mycenae, there are these three amazing old tombs, called tholos, one named for Atreus, the oldest and biggest, one for Clytemnestra, and one for Aegisthus, the first two of this last set of pictures are from the tomb of Clytemnestra and the last two are from the tomb of Aegisthus — the top fell in, so you can see the shape of it in a literally illuminating way. We don’t actually know whether the house of Atreus lived here, but the citadel at Mycenae points to a certain structure of community life whose conflicts Homer and the tragedians depict in a way that the 4th century Greek philosophers are still thinking about, and I suppose that means in a way that I’m still thinking about.
All this to say, I didn’t realize how much seeing these sites in the landscape alongside rereading these stories would help me understand the historical context in which Plato and Aristotle write and think. Walking up the hill into the inner courts of the palace of Mycenae one feels the structure of the Mycenaean palace and how it stands in striking contrast to the polis with its open agora in Athens.
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