5 Kingdoms of Greece’s Heroic Age

Tim Venning

Ancient and Classical Ancient Greece
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For some 500 years at the end of the Bronze Age, one civilisation dominated mainland Greece. They were called the Mycenaeans.

Epitomised by bureaucratic palatial administrations, monumental royal tombs, intricate frescoes, ‘Cyclopean’ fortifications and prestigious grave goods, this civilisation continues to fascinate historians and archaeologists to this day.

Yet the political landscape of this civilisation was split – divided between several domains. Of these domains, it was the Kingdom of Mycenae in the north-east Peloponnese that ruled supreme – its monarch being referred to as wanax or ‘high king’. But evidence of several other ‘Heroic Age’ kingdoms survive, each ruled by a chieftain (a basileus). Archaeology has confirmed that these domains were based on real Mycenaean sites.

Here are 5 of these kingdoms.

Mycenaean sites
Reconstruction of the political landscape in c. 1400–1250 BC mainland southern Greece. The red markers highlight Mycenaean palatial centres (Credit: Alexikoua / CC).

1. Athens

Athens had a Mycenaean citadel on the Acropolis, and traditionally had a long line of kings in the ‘Heroic Age’, the original dynasty being superseded by refugees from Pylos shortly before the ‘Dorian’ invasions a couple of generations after the Trojan War.

The Athenians continued to be of ‘Ionian’ stock and linguistic affiliation after c.1100 claiming direct descent from the Mycenaeans, while those speaking a different Greek dialect, subsequently identified as a distinct people – the ‘Dorians’ – took over neighbouring Corinth and Thebes and the Peloponnese.

The Erechtheum,
The Erechtheum, situated on Athens’ Acropolis. The remains of a Mycenaean citadel have been discovered on the Acropolis.

What is not certain is whether the legend was invented to explain the undoubted linguistic differences between Athenians and their neighbours in personal terms, dramatising a process of gradual cultural change and creation of separate regional identities as ‘invasion’ and ‘conquest’.

Many of the early kings’ names and the stories told about them certainly seem to be rationalisations of developments in Athenian society.

It is possible however that some names and deeds of early rulers were remembered correctly in oral traditions – and that there was a real great king behind the central Athenian legend of ‘Theseus’ even if his cult acquired many unhistorical additions before the story was formalised (as with ‘Arthur’ in Britain).

The question of dating is however impossible to verify, given the lack of written or archaeological evidence.

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2. Sparta

Sparta was supposedly ruled in the Mycenaean ‘Heroic Age’ by King Oebalus, his son Hippocoon and grandson Tyndareus, and then the latter’s son-in-law Menelaus, cuckolded husband of Helen and brother of ‘High King’ Agamemnon of Mycenae.

The historicity of these legends is uncertain, but despite not being written down for centuries they may contain some truth and accurately remember names of early kings. Archaeological finds certainly suggest that there was a contemporary site that could have included a palace, at Amyclae rather than the nearby ‘Classical’ site of Sparta.

This was not on the same scale of wealth or sophistication of Mycenae. According to legend the Heraclids, expelled descendants of the hero Heracles/ Hercules, then led a ‘Dorian’ tribal invasion from northern Greece in the 12th century BC.

Menelaion
Some of the remains of the temple to Menelaus (Credit: Heinz Schmitz / CC).

3. Thebes

A Mycenaean-era royal site certainly existed at Thebes north of Athens too, and the citadel, the ‘Cadmeia’, was apparently the administrative centre of the state.

But it is uncertain how much reliance can be placed on the stylised legends of king Oedipus, the man who unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother as remembered by Classical era myths, and his dynasty.

Legend remembered Cadmus, the dynastic founder, as having come from Phoenicia and Middle Eastern writing-tablets were found at the citadel. As with Theseus, events may have been telescoped or exaggerated.

Ruins of the Cadmea
The ruins of the Cadmea at Thebes today (Credit: Nefasdicere / CC).

4. Pylos

Pylos in the southwest Peloponnese was noted in legend as the kingdom of the aged hero Nestor who participated in the Trojan War, with a ranking from the number of ships sent to the Trojan War as second only to Mycenae.

The existence of this kingdom in a remote area of Messenia was confirmed in spectacular fashion by the discovery of a major palace at the hilltop site of Epano Eglianos, 11 miles from the modern town of Pylos, in 1939, by a joint US-Greek archaeological expedition.

Palace of Nestor
Tourists visit the remains of the Palace of Nestor. (Credit: Dimitris19933 / CC).

The huge palace, originally on two floors, remains the largest Mycenaean-era palace discovered in Greece and the second-largest one of the region after Knossos on Crete.

The palace was a major administrative centre with a large and well-run bureaucracy, as shown by its huge archive of tablets written in the then newly-found script of ‘Linear B’ – structurally similar to but different in language to the Cretan ‘Linear A’.

It was subsequently deciphered in 1950 by Michael Ventris and identified as an early form of Greek. The kingdom has been estimated as having a population of some 50,000, largely engaged in farming but also with a skilled and rich crafts-tradition in pottery, seals, and jewellery mixing advanced Cretan artistic developments with local tradition.

Digging resumed in 1952, and a second major discovery was made in 2015 – the tomb of the so-called ‘Griffin Warrior’, so-called from an ornamental plaque decorated with a griffin dug up there along with weapons, jewellery and seals.

The level of craftsmanship showed a high degree of skills even at the opening of the Mycenaean era; the tomb has been dated to around 1600 BC, around the time that the palace was built.

As with Mycenae itself, the discovered ‘shaft-grave’ (tholos) burials were several centuries before the height of development of the palace-complex and around 400 years before the usual date presumed for the ‘Trojan War’ – and revised historians’ reckoning of the cultural sophistication of the early Mycenaean era, when Crete was assumed to have been the regional centre of civilisation.

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5. Iolcos

It is possible that there is some reality behind the legendary dynastic link with another ‘minor’ coastal settlement, Iolcos in east Thessaly, or the supposed move of the exiled royal family to Athens on the Dorian invasion.

Its most notable legendary ruler was Jason of the ‘Argonaut’ expedition to Colchis, which was supposed to have taken place around a generation before the Trojan War.

Dimini archaeological site.
Dimini archaeological site in Thessaly, believed to be the site of Mycenaean Iolcos (Credit: Kritheus / CC).

The legend has been rationalised as mythologising early commercial expeditions from northern Greece into the Black Sea, with Colchis later identified as Abasgia or western Georgia at the sea’s Eastern end.

There was a practice there of dipping fleeces in rivers to ‘sift’ for particles of gold washed down mountain streams, so Greek visitors acquiring one of these is logical though the dramatic story of Jason and the bloodthirsty Colchian princess/ sorceress ‘Medea’ would be a later romance. A minor royal/urban site has been found at Iolcos.

Dr Timothy Venning is a freelance researcher and the author of several books spanning antiquity to the Early Modern era. A Chronology of Ancient Greece was published on 18 November 2015, by Pen & Sword Publishing.

A Chronology of Ancient Greece

Tim Venning