If the development of the myth of Heracles/Hercules were to be represented with the graph of a function it would show an ever growing curve which starts in ca 1400 BC and reaches its apex in 287 AD when co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian defined their roles in the Tetrarchy system by assuming the titles of Iovius (the former) and Herculius (the latter); in this way Hercules, the hero known for his strength and who was not a member of the original Olympian pantheon was almost made equal to Jupiter, the Father of Gods and men.
Collezione Ludovisi: sarcophagus relief depicting nine Labours of Hercules, beginning with the first one, the slaying of the Nemean Lion in Argolis
The Twelve Labours of Hercules are a series of popular tales which shed light on the early development of civilization in continental Greece and its spreading to other Mediterranean countries. The first six labours take place in the Peloponnese, the next five occur outside Greece in locations which span from the Black Sea to Spain, the twelfth and last is set in the Underworld. Of the first six labours, three take place in Argolis, a region of northern Peloponnese which is named after the ancient town of Argos.
The earliest developments of civilization in Greece occurred on Crete (Minoan civilization) and on the islands surrounding Delos (Cycladic civilization); they were followed by the Mycenaean civilization, which was not limited to Argolis, but had three of its most important centres there: Argos, Mycenae and Tiryns.
Some part of Mycenae remained in the second century, with
a gate, on which were lions; a fountain; the subterraneous
edifices, where Atreus and his sons had deposited their treasures;
and, among other sepulchral monuments, one of Agamemnon,
and one of his fellow soldiers and sufferers. (..) "Having re-ascended Mount Tretus, says Pausanias, on the
"left hand of the road to Argos are the ruins of Mycenae." We crossed the wide bed of the torrent-river, and the Inachus, and then travelled in a dusty road in the plain, and about sunset
arrived at Tretus. On reviewing our journey, I found with
regret, that Mycenae was at no great distance on our right, when we entered between the mountains.
Richard Chandler - An account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of dilettanti - 1775
Mycenae and the ravine which protected its eastern side and behind it Mount Euboea
(1804/1805) Every thing at Mycenae is
of the most ancient date, for the city was destroyed and depopulated
by the Argives soon after the Persian invasion, (Strabo) about 466 years
before Christ, having existed about 913 years from its foundation by
Perseus in the fourteenth century. (..) The town, which was of considerable extent, covered the whole of the
slope down to the torrent, and the opposite ascent to the citadel.
William Gell - An Itinerary of Greece With a Commentary on Pausanias and Strabo - 1810
Sir William Gell (1777-1836) was an excellent topographer and his description of the ruins of Mycenae and of other ancient Greek towns still provide valuable information.
Its name was given to one of the greatest civilizations of Greek prehistory, the Mycenaean civilization, while the myths related to its history, its rulers and their family members (such as Klytaimnestra, Ifigeneia, Elektra, Orestes) have inspired poets, writers and artists over many centuries, from the ancient to the contemporary times. Significant stages in monumental architecture are still visible in the property, such as the massive defensive walls, the corbelled tholos tombs and the Lions Gate.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Mycenae which in 1999 was added to the World Heritage List together with Tiryns.
The hill chosen for the foundation of Mycenae was not particularly favourable in terms of defence; it had the advantage of having its eastern side protected by a deep ravine, but on the other sides the hill sloped gently downwards; in addition Mt. Euboea, a high mountain to the north of the hill, provided enemies with a good view of the layout of the town and of its fortifications. The choice of the site was therefore influenced by other factors such as probably its position at the centre of a large farmed area.
The royal tombs unearthed at Mycenae in 1876 have provided archaeologists with many artefacts of exceptional interest which led to understanding the level of refinement attained by that civilization which lasted five centuries from 1600 to 1100 BC; its sudden decline is attributed to the invasion of Argolis by tribes coming from the north.
The southern rampart of the citadel follows the natural irregularities
of the precipice. (..) After
entering the gate of the lions, there was a road commanded by a wall
which traversed the hill almost to the opposite side, before it turned
to the summit, so that the place was defended by at least a triple
enclosure. (..) These fortifications were reputed to be impregnable in ancient times, for "when the Argives were unable to destroy the walls of Mycenae, on account of their extraordinary strength, being like those
of Tiryns, the work of the Cyclopes, the inhabitants were forced by
famine to abandon the city" Pausanias. Gell
The layout of Mycenae was roughly triangular with one side (the southern one) facing the plain and the other two the mountains; in ca 1350 BC the walls of the town were rebuilt and enlarged by using boulders which were roughly cut to obtain a smooth external surface; the walls were called cyclopean on the assumption that only giants could have lifted their boulders; similar walls can be seen in several towns south of Rome such as Segni and Alatri, but they were built one thousand years later.
Bastion protecting the Gate of the Lions, which is located at its right end
The walls of the citadel are very curious, being evidently of the same date with those of Tirynthus. (..) Except the gates the whole circuit of the citadel is built of
rough masses of rock, but though rough, they are even yet sometimes found very nicely adjusted and fitted to each other, though the
smaller stones which filled up the interstices have generally disappeared. Gell
May 1806. From Charvati I immediately set out on foot with a guide for Mycenae. (..) A very small part of the walls, and a ruined gate is all that now remains of the "dites Mycenas" (rich Mycenae - Horace). (..) The stones of the ruined walls are immense oblong masses, from ten to fifteen feet long, and proportionably broad. After stopping to contemplate these miserable remnants of a city once so magnificent, I returned to the village, where I made a good dinner, and bought of the inhabitants a few medals. These people have been so spoilt by travellers, that they observe no moderation in the prices they ask.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820
The most impressive section of the walls is located near the main gate; it is a long bastion the height of which is enhanced by that of the underlying rock; the right side of the image shows the remains of a square tower which stood opposite the bastion and which completed the protection of the gate.
Follow the watercourse, and the gate of the lions will soon be visible on the right. (..) The gate of the
lions is thus mentioned by Pausanias. "Some parts of the circuit of
the wall of Mycenae remain, as well as a gate, over which are lions." (..) The gate is situated at the end of a recess about 50 feet deep, commanded by projections of the wall, which is in this part composed at
huge blocks of squared stones; but they are often placed exactly one
above another so that the joints of three or four courses are precisely
in one perpendicular line, which gives a strange and barbarous appearance to the whole. The architrave consists of a single stone 15
feet long, and four feet four inches high. The triangular stone on which the lions are sculptured is 11 feet six
inches long. (..) The gates folded, and were secured by bars.
The engineers who designed the walls of Mycenae were satisfied that the bastion and the tower granted adequate protection to the main gate of the town which therefore was built giving more attention to political and celebratory aspects; this gate was much larger than required by practical needs and its access to the town was not protected by a second gate placed shortly after the main one, as at Tiryns.
Vase found at Mycenae and now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (see other vases which were found at Argos)
At an angle of the fortress on the south,
overlooking the ravine and torrent, is a great quantity of broken pottery, both in black varnish and white, with spiral lines of a brown
colour, which seem to have been the favourite ornament at Mycenae. Gell
The rationale behind the decision of the Mycenaean engineers lay in their opinion that the long bastion gave un unbeatable advantage to the defenders; however the protection given by the bastion would have been more effective had the bastion been on the other side of the gate; this because ancient warriors were trained to hold the shield with their left arm and they were therefore at a loss when they had to protect themselves from arrows, javelins and stones which were thrown at them from the right.
The lions have much the appearance of the supporters of an armorial shield, the fore paws being placed on a projecting ornament,
while the hinder feet rest on the architrave of the gate. Between
them is a semicircular pillar, which might be called Doric, but it diminishes from the capital to the base (this detail might have influenced the reconstruction of the palaces of Knossos). (..) The abacus is that of the Doric order; it supports four balls or circles, which are again surmounted by
a second abacus, similar to the first. (..) The lions or more properly lionesses, are the only
existing specimen of the sculpture of the heroic ages, and they are
worthy of particular attention. It is remarkable that they have not
the tails of lions, a circumstance observable also in the sculptures of
In the early XIXth century some western travellers who visited Mycenae thought this gate was the entrance to a medieval castle and its relief depicted the heraldic symbols of a French knight. The relief shows two rampant lions confronting each other across an altar supporting a column; its origin was extensively debated by archaeologists; today it is attributed to the influence of similar images found on Cretan stone seals and ivory artefacts (for a different use of lions as protectors of gates see a Hittite gate st Hattusa which is almost of the same period).
The heads of the lions were made up of another material, probably painted ceramics; the holes where the heads were hooked on are still visible; they hint at projecting and perhaps even movable heads.
On the northern side the declivity is also very steep, and
there is a gate, which consists of two stones covered by a third. The
opening is five feet 11 inches wide at the bottom, and five feet four
inches at the top. Above the architrave is a large stone approaching
the form of a triangle, with which the ruin is about 14 feet high.
The access to this entrance
was by an artificial terrace: which was completely commanded by
the wall. Gell
Mycenae had a second gate facing the mountains; this gate did not have the same celebratory and political purpose as the main gate and it was protected by a long wall on its right side; it can therefore be regarded as a "Left Gate" similar to the Scaean Gate of Troy mentioned by Homer and to gates at Ferentino in Italy.
Corbelled tunnel leading to an underground water source
A curtain nearly in a right line extends from this gate to that of the lions, and it is very probable that certain holes in the
earth above this wall, which are shewn by the natives as cisterns, are
actually connected with galleries similar to those of Tirynthus. (..) This style of building has usually been termed Cyclopian,
but it certainly appears that the walls of the most ancient cities of
the Peloponnesus, whether attributed to the Cyclopes or not, were of
this construction. Tiryns, and indeed Mycenae, differ from the rest
in the galleries and the gates. Gell
The engineers of Mycenae were very skilled in corbelling techniques and they were able to build long vaulted passages and veritable domes which have not collapsed and this is particularly remarkable when considering that Greece is a country subject to severe earthquakes. Going down the long tunnel which led to an underground source is an exciting experience, whereas returning to the surface evokes a sense of relief, because although one is aware that the construction is sound, corbelled passages convey the feeling that their stones are just about to fall.
Bastion of the acropolis
The Minoan and Cycladic civilizations were greatly influenced by having developed on islands and trade played a major role in their economies; the Mycenaean one instead was based on farming and stock breeding. These activities could be performed only in some areas of the region, broadly speaking on the hills; the mountains were covered with thick forests which housed wild animals such as lions and boars, while most of the plain of Argolis was marshy and unhealthy.
The three labours of Hercules which take place in Argolis hint at the risks posed by a still hostile nature; in the First Labour Hercules killed the Nemean Lion, an enormous beast which lived in a cave near Nemea, a town between Mycenae and Corinth and which was the terror of shepherds. Hercules found the lion on Mount Tretus and, after his arrows, sword and club had failed to harm the beast, he engaged in a wrestling combat and managed to strangle it to death. He then flayed the carcass and after that he wore its pelt as armour with the head acting as a helmet. In the other labours the scene moved from the mountains to the swamps of Lerna near the sea, where the Hydra, a monster with nine snaky heads terrorized the farmers (Second Labour) and to the Stymphalian lake at the border with Arcadia from where monstrous birds took to the air to kill men and domestic animals by discharging bronze feathers (Sixth Labour).
The citadel of Mycenae, with its strategic position for the control of the Argolid Plain, is the kingdom of the mythical Agamemnon and the most important and richest palatial centre of the Late Bronze Age in Greece. UNESCO
Town is perhaps not the most appropriate term to define Mycenae which was more similar to some large English castles which housed the baronial residence, a series of facilities and workshops associated with farming and breeding including administrative offices and the lodgings for artisans, clerks and servants.
The acropolis of Mycenae housed the royal palace which consisted of a series of courtyards surrounded by rooms and halls; archaeologists have identified a major courtyard giving access to the megaron, a large hall, and to the throne room; the layout of the palace, with the help of a detailed map, is still clearly identifiable.
On the top are some foundations which appear to be of an age less
remote. Roman coins have been found on the spot. Gell
Exactly when and why Mycenae suddenly declined is still a matter for debate; archaeologists have found evidence of a great fire, which was probably set by enemies who conquered the town in ca 1100 BC. The site was abandoned for maybe six centuries until a small temple to Athena was built on the acropolis, but similar to Tiryns and unlike Argos, Mycenae did not enjoy a second life and it was abandoned again.
The image in the background of this page shows a chariot painted on a vase found at Mycenae, now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.