The Setting of the Stage

A traveller afoot, steadily on the road, marching from Athens westward, crosses the Corinthian Isthmus and, by continuing to the south, may arrive at Mycenae before the sunset of the second day. He follows the rocky road uphill and reaches the fortification wall of the ancient citadel. Rampant stone lions in relief crown the gate of Mycenae. Inside the gate, immediately to the right, he is shown the shaft graves of the ancient kings. The place is deserted; no village occupies the site. Resting at the gate, the traveller has before him the Argive plain, the scene of some of the most celebrated events of the human past.

Before the historical age of Greece started, called also the Ionian or Hellenic Age, Greece had another civilization. It centered at Mycenae; it spread over Greece and over the Helladic islands; vestiges of it were found in many places of the ancient world. It was closely contemporaneous with the last phase of another civilization, the so-called Minoan, centered on the island of Crete to the south. These two great cultures left cities and palaces, ruined and deserted, and rich relics—pottery of exquisite forms, and gold and jewels—but no history known to modern man. Yet of Mycenae and of her heroes such a treasure of legend is preserved in Greek lore that some of the heroes of that kingdom in the Argive plain and their contemporaries are more familiar to us than leaders of other races and other times much more recent. Agamemnon, Menelaus, Nestor, Achilles, and Odysseus are better remembered and more widely known than most of the military leaders of the great wars of our own century. Heroes of other times and nations are too often not known at all.

Their names were . . . Ask oblivion!
“They had no poet, and they died.”1

This is said not just of heroes but of whole civilizations.

Agamemnon and Menelaus were sons of Atreus, king of Mycenae; and legends were told about Atreus and Thyestes, brothers who quarreled over the throne, and about the sign in favor of Atreus that was seen in the sun retracing its course. These legends lived in Greek lore. Another cycle of legends centered on Thebes in Boeotia, and on the Argonaut expedition to Colchis on the Caucasian coast of the Black Sea, which preceded the Trojan War by several decades.

The world of these legends, cruel and heroic and treacherous, occupied the fantasy of the Greeks; and Greek tragic poets of the fifth century, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, had an inexhaustible store of themes to draw upon.

There is hardly any problem in the entire history of literature that occupies the minds of scholars as much as the origin of the Homeric epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey—especially the question as to the time of their origin.

The Iliad tells of the events of the final stage of the siege of Troy by the host of the Achaeans under Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. The Odyssey tells of the long wanderings of Odysseus, one of the heroes of that siege, on his circuitous way home.

Tradition has it that Homer was a blind bard who lived and wandered on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. Among the cities and islands that claimed to have been his birthplace were Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, Salamis, Rhodes, Argos, and Athens. Beyond this the tradition is very meager as to the personality of the poet and the events of his life. Several apocryphal writings pretending to tell something of him were composed in Greece, but had nothing to commend them. When did he live and create? In his great epics he described the Mycenaean world which supposedly ended almost five centuries before him; he shows a very great knowledge of that time—yet he knew the world of the seventh century, too.

There are those who argue that the author of the Iliad and Odyssey was not one man but a group of bards, or a succession of wandering poets, each of whom added of his inspiration to the epics; and sometimes it is also argued that there was no historical siege of Troy and that the story of the war is but the poet’s creation. The Odyssey appears to be just a story of fancy. However, a war expedition in which many leaders, kings of cities in Greece, took part, and the capture of a fortress named Ilion or Troy, ruled by King Priam, could not be easily relegated, all and sundry, to the domain of fancy. Many Greek and Latin authors referred to it, though their source was invariably Homer. Among the early authors Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote cycles of tragedies dealing with the personalities of the Homeric epics and with their families, and many other poets followed in the path of the ancient bard. Virgil’s Aeneid, telling the story of the peregrinations of Aeneas, one of the defenders of Troy, is famed as emulation of Homer’s Odyssey.

Through the classical period of Greece, through the Hellenistic age that followed, through the age of the Roman Empire, then through the Middle Ages, the Trojan War was the main event of the past, competing in this with the exploits of Alexander of Macedon, for whom Achilles of the Iliad served as the model. But in the nineteenth century, in the “age of reasonableness” that followed the “age of reason,” the view prevailed that the Trojan War was part of the imagery of a poet and Troy itself had never existed.

However in the 1870s the skeptics were confounded by Heinrich Schliemann, an adventurer with rich imagination, who as a cabin boy went on a merchant ship bound for America that suffered shipwreck;2

he was a clerk in Holland, an importer in St. Petersburg, a man not to miss the California goldrush. Having grown rich through the years of adventures, Schliemann went to Hissarlik, a low hill near the Dardanelles, on the Aegean shore of Turkey, after proclaiming that he would find Troy there. Schliemann’s advance public announcement as to his intent to discover Troy was met partly with disbelief and sarcasm, but mostly with indifference. He dug, destroyed much valuable material and disturbed some of the archaeological sequence; but he discovered beneath the mound of Hissarlik the remains of seven cities, one beneath the other.3

He identified the second city from the bottom as the Troy of which Homer sang: it was a fortress, strong and rich in treasures, seemingly destroyed in a violent earthquake.4

Later scholars identified King Priam’s city as the sixth from the bottom, still later as Troy VIIa.

In 1876 Schliemann, now crowned with success, went to the Argive plain in Greece, to Mycenae, to locate the tomb of Agamemnon, “king of men,” the leader of the Achaeans at the siege of Troy. Soon he cabled to King George of the Hellenes that he had opened the grave of his predecessor among the five large shaft tombs which he discovered hewn in rock, with the skeletons of their occupants, with gold crowns and gold masks and much jewelry, gold vessels with oriental designs, and pottery. All kinds of voices were now heard. One scholar announced that the find and its treasures date from the Byzantine age (first millennium A.D); but in time the royal graves came to be accepted for what they were—of an era preceding the historical period in Greece—however not of Agamemnon and his house who supposedly lived in the thirteenth or early twelfth century, but of an age several centuries earlier. How was this figured out? In the buildings and tombs of Mycenae cartouches of Amenhotep II, Amenhotep III, and Queen Tiy, wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhnaton were found,5 and in Akhnaton’s short-lived city Akhetaton, deposits of typical Mycenaean pottery were unearthed. The age of these pharaohs in the conventional timetable belongs to the first half of the fourteenth century. Schliemann was wrong again in his identification, but right in the main: here were for all to see rich relics of the Mycenaean civilization.

Schliemann made further diggings at Tiryns, in the Argive plain, and next intended to dig on Crete, but he did not come to terms with the owners of the land, for which he made a bargain offer.

At the beginning of this century Arthur Evans, having obtained a concession, dug at Knossos on Crete and brought to light the Minoan civilization—palaces and frescoes and paved courts, a silent world of bygone days. The Minoan civilization could be traced to various stages separated by definite interruptions—Early Minoan, Middle Minoan, and Late Minoan—and it was the Late Minoan age that ran parallel with the Mycenaean age. If anything, the Minoan civilization appeared as the dominant of the two. It was Evans’ excavations on Crete that established the contemporaneity of Mycenaean ware with that of the Late Minoan period. On Crete Evans also found tablets with incised signs of two scripts, called by him Linear A and Linear B. Later tablets with the Linear B script were found in large numbers at Pylos and at other ruined cities on the Greek mainland, and still later they were deciphered. But we are ahead of our story.


  1. Don Marquis, quoting Pope.
  2. Of this shipwreck Schliemann wrote to his sisters in Hanover an exciting account of miraculous escape from death. In his later autobiography he exposes his letter-report as more fantasy than truth.
  3. In Troy and Its Remains (London, 1875) Schliemann distinguished four cities; in Ilios, The City and Country of the Trojans (London, 1880) he recognized seven.
  4. This is the view of C. F. A. Schaeffer, argued in his Stratigraphie comparée et chronologie de l’Asie occidentale (IIIe et IIe millenaires) (Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 225. C. Blegen ascribed the destruction to a human foe.
  5. J. D. S. Pendlebury, Aegyptiaca (Cambridge, 1930), pp. 53-57.