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 which had three of its most important centres there: Argos, Mycenae and Tiryns.
Tiryns, situated 20 km north-east of Mycenae on a low hill near the inlet of the Argolic Gulf, is an excellent example of the Mycenaean civilization. The fortification of the hill, completed at the end of the 13th century BC, surrounds the citadel with a total perimeter of approximately 750 m. The impressive walls, built of stones even larger than those of Mycenae, are up to 8 m thick and 13 m high.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Tiryns which in 1999 was added to the World Heritage List together with Mycenae.
Views from the Upper Citadel of Tiryns: (above) towards the Gulf of Argos which is just a mile away; (below) towards Nauplia
We left Nauplia
behind us, and travelled toward Argos.
Our guides led us out of the direct road to an abandoned
fortress on a rocky eminence in the plain. The wall has large
stones toward the bottom; the superstructure chiefly modern,
and mere patch-work. This was once Tiryns, the citadel of
Proetus, the ruins of which were extant on the right-hand of the road from Argos to Epidauria. The Cyclopes, were said to have erected the wall, which only
remained in the second century. It consisted of rough stones,
the smallest of which could not have been moved at first by a
yoke of mules; with lesser stones fitted to fill the vacant spaces. (..)
We continued our journey over a level plain, of fine impalpable soil, and by cotton-grounds, gardens, and the stubble of
Richard Chandler - An account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of dilettanti - 1775
(1804/1805) The city of course surrounded the fortress, for the area is not sufficient to have contained the houses of the inhabitants, however insignificant the colony might have been. The sea was probably much nearer in very early times than it is at present, being nearly 15 minutes distant.
William Gell - An Itinerary of Greece With a Commentary on Pausanias and Strabo - 1810
The civilization which developed in Argolis in the period 1600-1100 BC is called Mycenaean, because in 1876 at Mycenae German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found several artefacts which proved the level of refinement attained during that period. The rulers of Argolis entertained relations with Crete and with towns on the south-western coast of Turkey; according to the interpretation given by many scholars to some inscriptions they were regarded as important counterparts by the Hittite kings.
Tiryns was probably the main port of Argolis; minor remains of an ancient harbour have been identified in the proximity of the fortified town.
Tiryns is the best specimen of the military architecture of the heroic
ages now existing. Homer calls it the well walled Tirynthus. (..) There can be no doubt that the present ruins are those of the citadel, which existed in the age of the poet. (..) The fortress is placed upon a small mount not 50 feet
above the level of the plain. The
circuit of the citadel was never larger than at present, as the foundations are perfect. There were three entrances, one on the east, another on the west,
and a third at the south eastern angle. (..) Among the ruins of Tiryns, Pausanias says, the
walls alone remain, which are said to have been the work of the
Tiryns is better defined as a castle rather than as a town; initially it was limited to the Upper Citadel where archaeologists have found evidence of a palace and of a limited number of military related buildings. Initial excavations were undertaken by Schliemann in 1884; he found out that the Upper Citadel was built above a previous smaller structure.
Walls and tower of the Upper Citadel near the main entrance
The entrance on the east is in tolerable preservation. A sloping
way 15 feet wide ascended from the plain along the eastern and
southern sides of a solid tower about 20 feet square, and 43 feet in
height, passing at the end of the second side under a gateway composed of tremendous blocks of stone.
The natural ground elevation upon which Tiryns was founded did not ensure an adequate defence so that imposing walls surrounding the citadel were required; the main entrance on the eastern side was strengthened by towers.
Upper Citadel: gate of the outer walls (seen from the interior)
It seems very probable that there was a triangular stone above the
architrave of this portal, for two pieces, making together a triangle of
about five feet four, by four feet seven, divided perpendicularly are
now lying near the spot. Gell
The walls of Tiryns were built by using boulders which were roughly cut to obtain a smooth external surface; this type of walls was called cyclopean on the assumption that only giants could have lifted the 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.
The portal at the south eastern angle has
entirely disappeared. It was connected with the eastern gate by an
avenue inclosed between the outer wall and an inner curtain. Gell
The eastern side of the Upper Citadel was protected by a double curtain of walls; the enemies who had managed to penetrate the outer walls found themselves in a rather awkward position; in order to reach the gate giving access to the royal palace they had to enter a passage between the outer and the inner walls.
Upper Citadel: (left) inner gate; (right) holes on one of its pillars (above) and on the floor (below)
The passage was blocked by a gate; the closure of the door was reinforced by placing a horizontal pole behind it; the wide size of the gate however indicates that, notwithstanding defence requirements, it had a celebratory and decorative function in times of peace.
In the book Schliemann wrote about his excavations at Tiryns he made many references to Troy and although today the events chanted by Homer are thought to have occurred after the decline of Tiryns, it is impossible not to think of them when visiting the archaeological site or seeing some of the artefacts which were found there.
so the many groups of soldiers moved out then
from ships and huts onto Scamander's plain.
Under men's and horses' feet the earth rang ominously.
Then they stood there, in that flowered meadow
by the Scamander, an immense array,
as numerous as leaves and flowers in springtime.
The soldiers, like a fire consuming all the land,
moved on out. Earth groaned under them, just as it does
when Zeus, who loves thunder, in his anger lashes
the land around Typhoeus, among the Arimi,
where people say Typhoeus has his lair.
That's how the earth groaned loudly under marching feet.
(The Iliad - Book II - Translation by Samuel Butler)
To the south of this portal is the best specimen of the galleries in the wall, which extend to the south eastern angle. The wall is generally about 25 feet in thickness, and consists of three
parallel ranks of stones five feet in thickness, which separate two
ranges of galleries, each five feet broad, and in their present state
about 12 feet high. The sides of these galleries are formed by two
courses of stone, and the covering consists of two other horizontal
courses which project till they meet. The roof is pointed when seen
from below, the lower surfaces of the stones being cut in an angle of
about 45 degrees. (..) These
galleries were probably continued round the whole of the citadel, but
they are accessible at present only at the southern part of it, where
the walls are least perfect.
They were probably the retreat of the garrison in case of a siege,
for there does not appear to have been any opening toward the plain,
as no windows or loop holes remain, which would have been the case
had they been destined to any military purpose. Gell
The outer walls of the Upper Citadel were so large that they included a series of casemates linked by long corbelled passages; it has been thought that these passages allowed the defenders to reach the top of the walls, but the existence of an internal staircase has not been positively identified.
Warfare at the time of ancient Tiryns was mainly based on hand-to-hand combats; chariots were used to move about in the battlefield and the Greeks, notwithstanding Apollo, Diana (and Eros) were not skilled archers. The stamina required by such combats was so high that it did not leave much space for mercy; the losing warrior clasped the knees of his opponent in order to plead mercy, but often to no avail.
After this he sprang on Laogonus and
Dardanus, sons of Bias, and threw them from their chariot, the one
with a blow from a thrown spear, while the other he cut down in
hand-to-hand fight. There was also Tros, the son of Alastor, he came up
to Achilles and clasped his knees in the hope that he would spare
him and not kill him but let him go, because they were both of the
same age. Fool, he might have known that he should not prevail with
him, for the man was in no mood for pity or forbearance but was in
grim earnest. Therefore when Tros laid hold of his knees and sought
a hearing for his prayers, Achilles drove his sword into his liver,
and the liver came rolling out, while his bosom was all covered with
the black blood that welled from the wound. Thus did death close his
eyes as he lay lifeless.
(The Iliad - Book XX - Translation by Samuel Butler).
Upper Citadel: (above) ruins of the palace; (below) monolith floor of a bathroom
The rooms and courtyards which made up the palace have been identified by the lower part of their walls which was built with big stones; they were covered by timber roofs. Archaeologists have been able to draw detailed maps showing the different areas, including those which were reserved to women and a bathroom.
National Archaeological Museum of Athens: fresco from Tiryns
Little is known of the Tirynthians, but their immoderate propensity
to laughter. Gell
While the ruins of the palace are rather silent on the way of living of its inhabitants, some small fragments of frescoes show the level of refinement achieved by the Mycenean civilization. In ancient Greece, long hair was a symbol of wealth and power; Zeus, Apollo, Venus wore long hair; only a very wealthy woman with many servants could have the elaborate hair of the lady portrayed in this fresco, which similar to the others found at Tiryns indicates a Minoan (Cretan) influence.
The Cretan influence is evident also in a fresco showing a bull-leaping exercise; bulls were worshipped in Crete and they were a symbol of the island; the Seventh Labour of Hercules (the first one outside Peloponnese) was the capture of the Cretan Bull and it is interpreted as representing the conquest of Crete by the Greeks of the mainland; this political and military development is also narrated in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Bull-leaping was most likely part of ceremonies or rites of passage for young men.
(above) Overall view of the Lower Citadel; (below) two corbelled arches in the Lower Citadel
There are here, as at Mycenae some trace of edifice of a later
date, and a cistern upon the top of the citadel. The northern point
of the hill is less elevated than the other, and the wall is generally
composed of stones of less magnitude than those which are employed in the galleries. (..) Tiryns was destroyed by
the Argives when they depopulated several of the neighbouring cities,
to increase the number of inhabitants at Argos. Gell
The Lower Citadel is the only part of Tiryns where ordinary houses have been identified; it was most likely added to the Upper Citadel at a later time. The decline of Tiryns is approximately set in ca 1100 BC when tribes coming from the north invaded Argolis. The site was eventually abandoned in the Vth century BC when according to tradition its inhabitants were forced to relocate to Argos.
The image used as background for this page is based on a coin portraying Hercules and the Nemean Lion shown in an exhibition at the Alpha Bank of Nauplia.