The Sea Raiders — Part 5. The Silver Age: Mykenai And Her Neighbours

James Thomas
Feb 28, 2014 · 19 min read


The origins of “The Sea Raiders” saga continues with the following : Part Two — NARRATIVE, Chapter IV — “The Silver Age : Mykenai And Her Neighbours” of A.R. BURN’S Book “Minoans Philistines and Greeks.” (1930). Reproduced in whole for the benefit of the reader.


The sack of Knossos in augurs the last period of the old Aegean civilization, Late Minoan III; on the Greek mainland Late Mycenaean. It is a long period, covering at least two centuries, and to the modern student it is clear at a glance that it is the age of the decline and fall of Minoan culture throughout the Aegean world.

Starting with nothing worse than a vulgarization of that culture, it culminates in widespread confusion, about 1200 B.C., everywhere from the Vardar to the Nile; and the end of the succeeding Sub-Mycenaean period (which seems to be the Achaian “Heroic Age”) saw the powerful mainland settlements fall by fire and sword.

But it does not follow that the men of the fourteenth century B.C., like Homer in the ninth, considered themselves inferior to the great ones of the past. On the contrary we may be sure that they did not. The builders and the rulers of “rich Mykenai” with its frowning wall, “piled by the hands of giants for godlike kings of old” as the later Greeks believed — for it was surely a superhuman feat to build with stones so huge — Mykenai with its Lion Gate, through which a king standing erect in his chariot might drive, and its secret passage underground to the hillside spring, whence water might be drawn in time of siege — these men were not afflicted by doubts or consciousness of decadence.

They, too, as well as the Cretans of old, had their potters and vase-painters and wall painters and cunning artists in gold; they, too — or perhaps it may have been their predecessors of two hundred years before — had their architects, the builders of the great hillside tombs such as the so-called “Treasury of Atreus”, with its forty-five foot dome-built without use of the keystone, and perfect to-day.

Even more wonderful than this great dome, perhaps, is the lintel of the stately doorway by which one enters it; a vast slab, poised a full twenty feet above the level of the passage floor, and calculated to weigh over one hundred tons.

It is a greater feat — though a smaller object — than an Egyptian pyramid, that tomb and the others like it. The lords of Mykenai must yield place to Pharaoh in the amount of slave-labour at their command; but their architects possessed an engineering and calculating skill that not even the great temple-builders of Egypt could despise.

Nor where industry and commerce, in the two generations following the fall of Knossos, less progressive than architecture. The art of the period, as seen both in frescoes from the mainland palaces and in vase-painting, may be “decadent” in the sense that it is stylized and conventional, but it is vigorous enough as yet, and more restful to the eyes that that of Crete a century before.


A Girl Rides Out, From Minoans Philistines and Greeks A.R. Burn, 1930.

But it is in craftsmanship and commerce that archaeology shows us the most definite progress. The potting of fourteenth century mainland vases is definitely superior to that of the fifteenth century Cretan product; and their fragments are found over a wide area — on every part of the Aegean coast-line, and even sporadically far inland in Asia Minor.

And what we know of industry and trade in the case of ceramics, we have the right to conjecture in the case of more perishable products. Aegean civilization, the tyranny of Crete removed, had entered upon an age of unprecedented expansion. South-Eastward, Ialysos in Rhodes was developing as a thriving and populous sea-port, and further afield the great island of Cyprus and perhaps even parts of the adjacent coast were colonised by what must have been a very numerous band of settlers ; settlers who spoke the “ArkadianGreek dialect of the contemporary mainland.

Northward, the Achaians of Thessaly came under the spell of the Minoan culture for the first time ; and even the wild chieftains of Thrace took a fancy to — and succeeded in buying — the long thrusting swords of Argolis.

In short the fall of Knossos must have seemed at worst an event of purely political significance — a victory of the Lion of Mykenai over the Cretan Bull, marked by the appearance of mainland influence in Crete instead of vice versa — and at best the welcome destruction of a paralysing tyranny. There was a less satisfactory side to the situation, but for some decades this was apparent to few if any.

The civilization and social life of Mykenai, Tiryns, Orchomenos and other mainland settlements, was Minoan — but Minoan with certain differences; differences due in part to adaptation to the conditions of mainland life, in part perhaps already to intermarriage between the colonists and the vigorous barbaric mainland Greeks. Ladies dress their hair in the Cretan style, and were as full dress the Cretan flounced skirt and open-breasted jacket; but men wear beards, instead of being clean-shaven, and tunics instead of the loin-cloth.

The palaces of the more important barons are shapeless and “labyrinthine” enough, and good Late Minoan frescoes adorn their walls; but by this period we find, as the central feature of each, a “great hall” of northern type, as at Troy, with pillared porch at one end, and a permanent hearth in the centre, on which a great log-fire blazed in the severe winter weather.


Hound in Leash. From Minoans Philistines and Greeks A.R. Burn, 1930.

So, too, in religion there is both likeness and difference; the sacred pillars of Crete were revered also on the mainland — a famous example, between its guardian beasts, adorns the Lion Gate; but on the other hand the Shaft-Graves, where Schliemann’s treasure was found, resemble the native “cist”; and amber was popular, probably for its supposed magical qualities, on the mainland but not in Crete.

Again, in the important matter of sport, we find that the lords of Tiryns no less than those of Knossos delighted in watching the bull-leaping game and liked to see frescoes of it if they were not watching the real thing; but they had also the opportunity — indeed, it was almost necessary for them — to take part in the manlier sport of big game hunting on foot with spear and sword.

Wild boars that laid waste the crops or lions that came down from the hills in winter against the cattle, must be fought and killed; and the delight of the lords of Tiryns and Mykenai in this dangerous and genuinely “sporting” contest, in which the beast not infrequently killed his man before he died or escaped, appears in the art they patronized.

In fresco we see the wild boar in the brake in full career, driven by hounds right on to the ready spears; on the famous inlaid dagger-blade, the furious turning at bay of the wounded lion. The foremost hunter is in deadly danger, knocked off his feet and weaponless. His four comrades rush forward — but will they be quick enough to save him?

It is a brilliant piece of work, that dagger-blade; reminiscent in its workmanship of the shield, inlaid with scenes of human life in peace and war, that the Fire-God made Achilles, and in the subject depicted, of the great lion-similes in the Iliad.


The Lion at Bay. ( Dagger-Blade from the Shaft-Graves). From Minoans Philistines and Greeks A.R. Burn, 1930.

The boar, too, is a favourite subject for Homeric similes, and always depicted as the most valiant and impetuous of beasts; it will not give way even to a lion, if they meet at a mountain spring. Individual beasts of both species even make a name for themselves in saga — The Lion of Kithairon, The Lion of Nemea, The wild Sow of Krommyon, The Boars of Erymanthos and of Kalydon. The last of these was only laid low by an army of hunters gathered from far and wide, for it had already “sent many men to the hateful funeral-pyre”.

Such heroes as Theseus, Meleagros, Herakles, count victories over beasts as well as men among their titles to fame.

And lastly — most noted of all differences between the Minoan and the mainland world — the Cretan cities are unfortified, while all those of the mainland are heavily walled. The fact speaks for itself. Not only were there repeated wars between the kings of one stronghold and another, and more especially between those north and south of the Isthmus — there were also fierce tribes of predatory hillmen still surviving untouched by Minoan culture, against whom the more civilized coast-landers waged a not always successful warfare.

Homer mentions casually a few such tribes; the hairy men of Pelion whom Peirithoos and Kaineus smote in the days when Nestor was young, and the up-country Arkadians whom Nestor’s own Pylians had fought under his leadership; whose champion “fought not with bow nor spear, but with an iron club he brake the battalions”. Meanwhile Thebes and Orchomenos, apart from hostility to one another, are both alike endangered by the raids of Taphians and Teleboans, presumably from the neighbourhood of Mount Taphiassos, against whom Amphitryon in Hesiod leads his punitive expedition, and of the Phlegyai “those violent men, who dwell upon earth caring not for Zeus, in a fair vale near the Kephisian Marsh”.


The Hunted Boar (Fresco from Tiryns). From Minoans Philistines and Greeks A.R. Burn, 1930.

Later tradition had a good deal to say of these Phlegyai; it was for fear of them that Zethos and Amphion fortified Thebes, for instance; but nevertheless they sacked it, under their king Eurymachos, after the sons of Antiope were dead. Not for nothing did Mykenai and its fellow-settlements, then, crouch behind their fortress walls.

Still, the picture suggested to the imagination in on the whole a pleasant one. If wars are frequent, at any rate defences are strong, out of all proportion to the means of attack; nor, at most periods of human history has an insecure life necessarily ceased to be a merry one.

The connotation of the adjective “Homeric” bears sufficient witness to that; and the outlook on life of Homer’s heroes was probably very like that of the men who dwelt in the frescoed palaces within those heavy fortress walls, amid the increasing turbulence of the Silver Age.

It is not quite the society described by Homer, this with which we are dealing. Two hundred years were to introduce some changes between the beginning of the Silver and the beginning of the Homeric Age; some progress in the art of war, some fading of Cretan before Northern religious and other influences, and the rise of parvenu Achaian Aiolids to political power in many cities.

Already we seem in the frescoes to see the life of the Iliad and Odyssey — a healthy country life out of doors, and within doors a fair standard of magnificence and even luxury, for kings and their families. A princess drives out in her chariot with a girl companion, on a Tirynthian fresco, driving with her own two horses, just as does Nausikaa in her mule-wagon when she and her maidens go out for the picnic and laundry expedition in the Odyssey; and the great hounds so proudly depicted, hunting the boar or held in leash by a squire, are evidence of the good “Aryan” companionship of man and dog. One is reminded of Odysseus and his dog Argos — “Swift” — that he left at home young when he departed to Troy, and which in extreme old age knew him and died, when he returned after many years, a beggar, unrecognised and alone.

The political map, too, is beginning to resemble that of Homer’s world. From Rhodes and Cyprus to Thessaly and Ithaka, Aegean civilization covers just the area held by the Achaians and their friends; and as in Homer, it has contact with Egypt, the Syrian coast, Lykia, Troy, and Thrace; while the Sikans and Sikels of the west are in both periods, though in Homer only vaguely, known through trade.

We must turn to consider what was going on east of the Aegean during the great days of Mykenai.

Here we find the first ominous symptom of the confusion that was to come — though it is no more than a symptom as yet. Since the fall of Knossos, piracy has been coming increasingly frequent in all parts of the Levant. If Amenhotep III really intrigued with the mainland Greeks against the house of Minos, he may have had some inkling, before his death in 1375 that he made a ruinous mistake.

The disappearance of the Minoan navy ended the effective policing of the seas for nearly a thousand years, and such hardy maritime tribes as the Lykians and Leleges — of late employed by Minos against piracy, but now deprived of that employment — took full advantage of the fact.

Before Amenhotep was dead, he had to arrange for the protection of the Delta coast itself against their depredations; and in the reign of his son, the “heretic pharaoh” Akhenaton, the King of Alasya (Cyprus, or the plain of Tarsus) complains that the “Lykki” yearly sack one village after another along the coasts of his land.

So much for the second in fame among the non-Greek races of the Iliad. As to the most famous of all, the Trojan Kingdom also was increasing in strength and in importance. It had already two centuries of prosperity behind it, since, in the sixteenth century, as archaeology shows, the founder of Laomedon’s and Priam’s kingdom re-fortified the hill of Hissarlik. The position had then been crowned by no fortress worthy of it since the “Second City” perished at the hands of an enemy nearly three hundred years before. It was now once more surrounded by an enceinte, of enormous strength and enclosing a much larger area than of old.

The walls were twenty feet high and sixteen feet thick at the base; and this mighty stone embankment (for its sides lean back a little from the perpendicular) was topped by a vertical stone rampart six feet in height and thickness.

“Dardanos first” (Aineias tells un in the Iliad) “was begotten of Zeus the Cloud-Gatherer, and he founded Dardania, for not yet was holy Ilios built in the plain as a city of mortal men, but still they dwelt on the hillside of Ida of the many springs.

And Dardanos begat a son, Erichthonios the king, who was richest of mortal men, and had three hundred acres at pasture in the water-meadows…. An Erichthonios begat Tros, lord of the Troes, and from Tros three noble sons were sprung, even Ilios and Assarakos and godlike Ganymedes; he was most beautiful of mortal men, and the gods carried him away to be Zeus’ cup bearer, for the sake of his beauty, that he might be among the immortals.

But Ilos begat a son, noble Laomedon, and Laomedon begat Tithonos and Piamos…but Assarakos begat Kapys, and he Anchises, and Anchises begat me, but Priam the goodly Hektor.”

Such a pedigree, from the pen of a foreign poet, can have little that is historical in the strict sense about it, excepting perhaps some of the last few names (especially those that are not Greek); but it presents several points of interest. Even the eponyms at the beginning of the list show us what Homer believed about the Trojan nationality. The Trojans, Troes, are a sub-tribe of the nation of the Dardanians; and the fortress of Ilios is a comparatively late affair; it has a shorter history than Dardania as a whole, or even than the “Trojan” sub-tribe.

It is incidentally worth noting that there is a contingent of Troes in the Iliad who are not inhabitants of Ilios but of another city, Zeleia; and that, although Aineias is in the pedigree called a descendant of Tros, his men are Dardanians indeed, but not Trojans, and expressly distinguished from them.

As to the origins of the Dardanian people, they were probably, as Homer clearly believed, indigenous inhabitants of the district were we find them. Most modern writers seem to conceive of them as immigrants from Europe — part of the “Thraco-Phrygian” movement which reached its height as late as 1200 B.C.; pointing by way of evidence to the existence of another tribe of Dardanians in north-west Bulgaria, who survived to be a thorn in the side of the Macedonian monarchy a thousand years later. Against this it may be argued that Homer everywhere distinguishes between Trojans or Dardanians and Phrygians, and that a later epic poet expressly tells us that their languages were different.

Since epic always tends rather to ignore differences of language than the reverse, this passage is important. To use the name “Phrygian” and “Trojan” interchangeably appears, therefore, to be merely a piece of Roman bungling.


Hittite Seal from a grave near Mykenai. From Minoans Philistines and Greeks A.R. Burn, 1930.

The Phrygians appear not to have entered Asia Minor before 1200 B.C.; the Dardanoi were certainly there about 1280, when the Hittites employed them as mercenaries, and if, as Homer Says, they were the builders of Ilios, then they were on the spot much earlier still — not much after 1600.

And as recent excavations in Macedonia seem to be making it clear that in the early part of the second millennium the current of migration had been from rather than into Asia Minor, it seems better to regard the European Dardanians as colonists from Asia, rather than vice versa.

However this may be, we can form a fairly clear picture of the character of the Trojan people during the four and a half centuries for which Ilios stood. They are essentially a hard-headed sturdy folk, as befits the holders of a key position where land-ways and sea-ways intersect. They were the men who built, and their princes the men who planned, the famous walls by which they secured themselves in possession of the wealth they won as commercial middlemen; for though Dr. Leaf’s pleasing theory, that Troy was the scene of a great annual fair, is unsupported by evidence, it is abundantly clear from archaeology that the Trojans did exploit the advantage of their position.

The finds tell of contact, direct or indirect, with lands from Cyprus to the Danube; while from the east came silver, mined by the Halziones of Alybe, a people friendly to Troy, and on the south-west Aegean civilization influenced and was influenced by that of Dardania.

There is even an early and not unsupported tradition, as we have seen, of Cretan settlers among the Troes. They are not an aggressive nor a particularly daring folk, these Trojans; they rarely travel by sea, and do not engage in aggressive wars; but they can fight with desperate tenacity in defence of their homes and their prosperity.

Lastly, it is noteworthy that when attacked by the predatory Achaian confederacy they are able to hold on for so long by the help of allies from every side; even the distant Paiones, Lykias, Paphlagonians. Troy, it seems, had made herself not only rich, but useful and respected; moreover she is able to subsidize her allies out of her reserves of wealth.

Lastly among the Aegean peoples prominent in the fourteenth century, we must mention the Shardana — a warlike tribe, than whose name none is more prominent in the troubled history of the years that follow.

We hear of them first (and indeed, only) In Egyptian records, where they appear at this time as mercenaries — twice mentioned in letters to Akhnaton from Rib-addi, Govenor of Byblos.

A little later, we may see them depicted for us on stone; for they played a great part in Egyptian history, being good servants and most formidable foes.

Their defensive armour is unlike that of Minoan Crete, and an improvement on it. Whereas the Aegean warrior has only his helmet and his huge leather shield — “like a tower”, “covering the while man”, “reaching to the feet”, as Homer says -the Shardana carry a round shield, “equal every way”, as Homer, who knows both types, puts it, and are further protected by a rather complicated type of corselet.

This item of equipment is formed of long overlapping bands of metal, perhaps on a leather backing; the general effect has often been compared to the armour of a lobster.

It is also curiously like that of the Roman Legionary. Therewith the Shardana wear a helmet adorned with horns and a high metal crest, and carry thrusting swords like those of the Aegean, but larger — sometimes of enormous size.

The blade is invariably very broad at the hilt, and has two straight edges, tapering to a point. They certainly are not suitable for a slash, as is sometimes asserted.

But the origins of these warriors is a mystery. “Shardana of the Sea” the Egyptians sometimes call them; but, with their usual ignorance of lands lying beyond the “Great Green”, give no further clue.

To Sardinia it is not possible that the tribe ultimately found its way, but the archaeological evidence from that island makes it hardly possible that they were already there.

Sardis has been suggested as their home; but we are assured by a learned ancient geographer that the city was not in existence until after the Trojan War.

Moreover, if they were dwelling in any part of Asia Minor, they must have come into contact with the Hittite Empire; yet not only are they not mentioned in any Hittite document at present known, but they actually fight for Egypt against the Hittites, at a time when the Hittites have mobilized practically the whole sub-continent, as far as Lykia and Dardania, on their own side.

It is hardly possible that at such a time the Hittites could afford to allow a people within their own sphere of influence to go on fighting for Egypt; or that any tribe in Asia Minor could afford to do so, in face of the likelihood of Hittite Vengeance.

On the other hand, if the Shardana hailed from anywhere within the Greek area, it is extraordinary that they have left absolutely no trace of themselves either in place-name or Legend; and there is also the non-Minoan armament to be considered.

The corselet, if anything points to Asia; it is an oriental invention, still almost unknown in Greece in the Fourteenth century, while in Asia Thothmes III of Egypt, in his victory over the allied Syrian Kings at Megiddo, is said to have captured two hundred of these pieces of armour.

On the Whole it seems best to suppose the Shardana natives of the Hermos region, where Sardis and the neighbouring Sardianian plain may preserve their name; also a Mount Sardene, overlooking Kyme at the mouth of the river, which is mentioned in an Ionian epic tag.

But during the migration-period their fame as mercenaries and raiders suggests that they were straitened for territory at home, while the fact that not the Hittites but their enemies employ the Shardana as soldiers makes it unlikely that they were still living on the Asiatic mainland; it looks as if they were at that time living an uncomfortable life somewhere in the islands; until finally, before the age of which Homer writes, they seem to have gathered all together and like the Greeks of Phokaia , ages later, in the same part of the world, sailed away to find a less troubled home in the Western Mediterranean.


Map of The Aegean About 1400 B.C. From Minoans Philistines and Greeks A.R. Burn, 1930.

In spite of some difference, it is generally agreed to be quite likely that the bronze statuettes of early Iron Age warriors, found in Sardinia, represent their descendants; the more so that these Sardinians, even in early Hellenic times, had not altogether forgotten their sea-raiding habits.

Strabo (V, P. 225) had heard accounts of their piratical descents upon the coast of Etruria.

The Iliad and Odyssey nowhere mention the tribe, unless their name underlies the proverbial phrase “Sardanian (not “Sardonic”) laughter”; which of course we cannot, with the ancient Romans, derive from the honey of Sardinia.

One early Greek legend seems to have connected it with the myth of Talos, the Bronze Man of Crete, whom Hephaistos made for Minos. He is said to have leapt into a furnace with, and so destroyed, “the Sardonians who refused to ferry him over to (or against) Minos”. “Sardonic laughter” is explained as grim or bitter laughter, from the contorted faces of the victims. The story can be traced back to the sixth century B.C., and is probably older than any Greek knowledge of the western Sardinia; nor is there any obvious reason why Sardinians in the modern sense should be brought into contact with Talos the fire-demon or with the ancient king of Crete.

Beyond all these, from the point of view of a Greek observer, lay, in the heart of Asia Minor, the capital of the powerful empire of the Khatti, whom we call Hittites. Now, in the early fourteenth century, they were at the height of their power, under the able and vigorous ruler who rejoiced in the name of Subbiluliuma.

In the course of the century, from their home in the east of the central tablelands, the Hittites penetrated to every part of the peninsula, extending their sphere of influence as far as the Lykian and Dardanian country, and leaving their characteristic crudely vigorous rock-hewn monument to mark their passage, along a route from the upper Halys valley, via the Upper Sangarios, to Mount Sipylos, overlooking the Hermos valley and not far from the sea.

With the stormy history of this people we are not here concerned, except in so far as the Hittites came into contact with the Nations of the Aegean; but such contacts are numerous and important. Occasional direct intercourse between Hittites and Mykenai itself seems to be proved, when citizens of Mykenai used inscribed steatite seals of Hittite manufacture.

It is worth noting, too, that an art practised in the Argolid but never in Minoan Crete — that of relief-sculpture on stone — is also an art for which the Hittites were and are famous. Such monuments as the Lion Gate relief, or the grave stone crudely adorned with a chieftain in his chariot in full career, can be most easily paralleled from Asia Minor.

The Hittite sphere of influence certainly extended to the Aegean. Effective control, it seems probable, rarely reached so far; Hittite monuments are rare and of isolated occurrence in the west, and the kings were usually preoccupied campaigning in the opposite direction. Whether a Hittite conqueror ever went further than the Aegean coast, we cannot tell. A priori it seems unlikely.

The Hittites were no sailors. Still, speculations as to the possibility of such expeditions have been made; and Greece had its stories of “Amazon” incursions from Asia Minor even into Attica.

Less nebulous, however, than such tales as the Amazon Legends in Plutarch’s Theseus, is the tradition concerning the fortress walls of Tiryns; a tradition deserving of the more respect from the fact that it was attached to a definite and extremely solid relic of antiquity.

These walls were believed to have been built by giants from Lykia, at the time when Proitos, King of Argos, driven from his kingdom by his brother Akrisios, had taken refuge with his friend and father-in-law, the Lykian king; and the latter presently sailed with a fleet and army and restored him to his throne.


A study of the Bronze Age by James Thomas

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