From Warriors to Raiders: The Evolution of Mycenaean Weapons, Armament & Tactics.

by Pat Lowinger

Prior to the 12th century BCE collapse of the Mycenaean citadels (city-fortresses), Mycenaean armies controlled Crete and the western coast and littoral regions of the Aegean Sea.  These armies had developed a rather complex and advanced system of warfare which included considerable advances in weapons, armor and chariotry.  Although the exact causation is still debated among archaeologists and historians, the collapse of many, if not all of the Mycenaean population centers, ushered in a dramatic change in the weapons, tactics, and the very nature of Mycenaean warfare.   By the end of the 11th century BCE, the previously large land-based armies which had arisen during the height of the Mycenaean Palatial Period (15-13th century BCE), had evolved into numerous bands of semi-autonomous sea-born raiders.

Warriors of the Palatial Period

tarzan-fresco

A portion of the ‘Tarzan Fresco’ at Pylos (reconstructed).

Any serious discussion regarding the nature of warfare during the Mycenaean Palatial Period must begin by examining the available archeological evidence.  Of particular interest are the ruins of Mycenae and Pylos.  The ‘Tarzan Fresco’ at Pylos gives clues as to the nature of Mycenaean warfare during this period. [1]  Depicted are three Mycenaean warriors, each clad in helmet, greaves and kilt who battle five ‘barbarians’ clad only in animal skins.  Only two of the ‘barbarians’ appear to be armed, one with a sword and the other with what could possibly be a club.  In contrast, the Mycenaeans are well-armed, two with swords and the third with a two-handed spear.  Similar in style, appearance and depiction(s) is the ‘River Battle Fresco’ at Tiryns. [2] In addition to these frescoes there are numerous carvings which depict the panoply of weapons and armor (or lack thereof) of Mycenaean infantry, such as the ‘Ivory Plaque from Delos.’[3] There appears to be 3 major components to the armament of a Mycenaean infantryman during the Palatial Period; a spear, large body shield and helmet- and who often carried a thrusting sword as a secondary or back-up weapon.  [4]

mycenaean-soldier_figure-8-shield_ivory-plaque_c-1300-bc_-archaeological-museum_delos

Ivory carving of Mycenaean warrior with helmet and figure-eight shield.  Archaeological Museum, Delos.

It is necessary to take close look at Mycenaean shields which can be classified into two types: the ‘figure-eight’ and ‘tower.’  Each type were constructed out of similar materials, composed of a wooden frame supporting a wicker-wood body, covered by one or more layer of hide, and typically measured to a height and width of 1.5 and 1 meter(s) respectfully. [5] The weight of the shield was born by the means of a heavy strap which passed over the left shoulder, which tells us much about its function. [6] The shield rested against the left side of the warrior’s body, leaving both of his arms free to grasp his spear, which measured 3.5-4 meters in length.  Thus, even a 2 meter tall man (who would be taller than average male for the period), would have nearly 75 percent of his front facing protected by the shield- a very effective form of protection. [7] The final piece of protection was a helmet, most often composed of boar’s-tusk, but bronze helmets, while rarer, are not unknown. [8]

The result was a warrior who was very well protected against frontal attacks.  Yet, all this protection wasn’t without a price, the shield was very cumbersome.  While we have little information regarding how infantry equipped this way actually formed up for battle, the ‘Fragmented Battle’ fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera gives some evidence that infantry operated in close formation(s). [9] Another important piece of related evidence found emblazoned upon the ‘Lion Hunt’ dagger which depicts warriors protected with figure-eight and tower shields in close order while being supported to the rear by an archer. [10] While not definitive, it does pose the question if Mycenaean infantry of this period ever operated in an early type of mixed-order formation.

mycenaeanchariotpylos

Fresco depiction of chariot and two warriors at Pylos.

Chariot Warriors

The Mycenaeans, like many of their contemporaries, employed chariots in battle. As was common throughout the Mediterranean, these chariot-warriors comprised an ‘elite arm’ of the military. [11] Chariots and the nature of their use is no small point of contention amongst historians.  Some, like Robert Drews have offered that Mycenaean chariots were used “as mobile platforms for archers.” [12] While this hypothesis would allow for a certain level of contiguity between various chariot-warrior cultures, such as the Egyptians and Hittites, many historians remain unconvinced.  The lack of corroborative archaeological evidence doesn’t seem to support the assertion. [13] To date, there have been no discoveries of composite bows or bows with comparable strengths or functionality found; the only depiction of such is a signet ring which clearly shows two armored charioteers engaged in hunting. [14A &B]  By weight of comparison, every other depiction of charioteers from this time period are depicted with armed with spears, helmets and occasionally wearing armor- such as the wall painting at Pylos and the carved grave marker at the citadel at Mycenae.  To add more debate to this question, the Linear B tablets found at the armory at Knossos (Minoan) do make references to composite bows, but offer no connection to their use by charioteers. [15]Unlike the landscapes of Egypt and the Levant, the coastlines and interiors of Greece are much more rugged and restricted, which poses grave consequences for any attempts to employ tactics similar to those of Egypt during the same period. In addition, by way of numerical comparison, the Linear B tablets at Knossos indicate that typically 400 chariots (perhaps as high as 550), compared to the 2000 chariots which Thutmose III brought with his army from Egypt to Megiddo. [16] The construction of Mycenaean chariots appears to have differed from that of Egypt, the construction was heavier and the axle was positioned near the center of the cab with a horizontal shaft and numerous over construction techniques to give greater strength at the cost of significantly increased weight and reduced speed. [17] This increased strength did allow it to operate over the rough and broken ground so common in the landscape with which it was employed but it was not suitable to the hit-and-run archery tactics pioneered by Egyptian charioteers.

dendra

Dendra armor with bore-tusk helmet at National Archaeological Museum, Corinth.

A feature wholly unique to Mycenaean charioteers was Dendra; an armor consisting of 15 bronze plates which cover the torso, arms, and legs. [18] When adorned, Dendra (dated to 1400 BC) offered significant protection to the wearer if engaged in close quarters.  “The Dendra panoply is usually interpreted as having belonged to a chariot-borne warrior, who would probably dismount to fight on foot in a manner familiar from the Homeric epics, probably using spears or the rapier-like swords characteristic of the era.” [19] Simply put, Dendra, was quite possibly the most formidable and protective form of armor in use throughout the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Near East.  The Mycenaeans had taken the chariot and made it their own.  It was still a key symbol of status and power, but had been adapted to their own needs- to bring the elite arm of the army to bear upon the battlefield.

Cavalry, Archers and Light Infantry

Not every Mycenaean warrior could be carried into battle on a chariot or even take his place amongst the large-shielded infantry.  The bow was a weapon in common usage by the Mycenaeans and its role on the battlefield attested to in numerous instances, such as the ‘Lion Hunt’ dagger mentioned earlier as well as the ‘Siege Rhyton’ in Mycenae. [20] In addition to archers, the Mycenaeans deployed javelineers armed with short thrusting swords to operate in difficult terrain were the previously discussed close-order infantry would have been put to a disadvantage. [21] While never consisting in large numbers, javelineers and their specialized role(s) was a key component of the Mycenaean army during the Palatial Period.

While no means commonplace cavalry was not unknown to the Mycenaeans as depicted in the ‘Amphoroid Krater’ (dated 1300-1250 BCE), along with a crewed chariot. [22] While there is no evidence to support that Mycenaeans fought from horseback, horsemanship was known to them and so the possibility of cavalry can not be entirely dismissed for any serious discussion of the topic. [23]

kratercavalry

Amphoroid Krater. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam

Builders of Ships & Swords

Throughout the Palatial Period, the Mycenaeans were competent ship builders.  A detailed discussion and typology of Aegean ships of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age has been created by archaeologist Micheal Wedde.  “The Myceneans were the first to use the oared galley and adopted a new (non-Minoan) hull shape, at the start of the Late Helladic IIIB Period (1350-1200 BCE).” [24] Vessels of this type are primarily designed for war.  The design of these ships allowed for swift raids on coastal towns and crewed by warriors who typically ground the vessel, disembark, fight, loot and quickly return- rowing away to safety. From Wedde, “the Mycenaeans developed a ship type well adapted for lighting visits to recalcitrant subjects, as well as for opportunist raids on non-aligned settlements.” [25]

To complement these ‘swift boats’ the Mycenaeans developed larger ‘Type VI’ boats which appeared to be solely designed for war.  A representation of the Type VI was found near Pylos and dated to c. 1200 BCE.  With up to 50 oars, the Type VI was the heavy warship of its day. Yet even the Type VI was constructed with a low gunwale, which allowed for easy beaching and the oars provided for rapid speed in coastal waters.  Another feature of the Type VI was the inclusion of ‘fighting platforms’ located at the fore and aft of the ship, which made it very capable of engagements at sea. [26] But life aboard ship, even for short periods of time, forced the adoption of new practices.  Sea-borne transportation of chariots was impractical as was the transportation of large bodies of men- although on occasion that did occur when a large scale invasions were undertaken.

In addition to advances in shipbuilding by the Mycenaeans, “in a few decades before and after 1200 BC, the eastern Mediterranean world underwent a transformation in the tools of war…’virtually all forms of offensive and defensive weaponry’ change ca.1200.”[27] “Both archaeologists and typologists of weapons have noted it was at this time that a new type of sword, the Naue Type II, arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean.” [28] Simply put, the size, shape and construction of the Naue Type II made it very effective in both thrusting and slashing attacks- so effective was the weapon, that by no later than the end of the 11th century BCE, it had replaced all other types of swords in Mediterranean.  So prevalent was the use of the Naue Type II among the Mycenaeans that many weapon typologists simply refer to it as the ‘Mycenaean sword”. [29]

The Collapse

War, disease, civil war, economic failures, famine, drought, hostile migrations, earthquakes and even floods have been offered as explanation for the collapse of the Mycenaean citadels.  In fact, one or more of these explanations is plausible- with a multi-causational theory gaining wider acceptance amongst archeologists.  What is known is that sometime at the beginning the 12th Century BC, many of the Mycenaean citadels were severely damaged or destroyed. [30] While some citadels at this time were wholly abandoned, others were partially repopulated and repaired.  For additional discussion of this topic please see previous discussion dated November 1, 2016.

Prior to the collapse we see improvements in citadel defenses, such as the famous ‘Lion Gate’ at Mycenae completed in c.1250 BCE or construction of the Cyclopean Wall at Athens at approximately the same period. [31] Beginning c. 1250 BCE, there are widespread instances of the construction of defense walls and fortifications throughout the western Aegean.  Most of the Mycenaean palaces fell one by one to fire; within two generations many of the surrounding towns and villages had also been similarly destroyed or abandoned. Even Athens which had escaped destruction existed as shadow of its former glory. [32]

Rise of the Raiders 

warriorvasemycenaean

The ‘Warrior’ vase found at Mycenae.

By way of examination, it is important to look at the ‘Warrior Vase’ from 12th century BCE  found at Mycenae.[33] In many ways in bears no resemblance to early Mycenaean depictions- on one side of the vase are 6 warriors, each very similar in appearance to each other.  Each carries a spear in one hand with proportions suggesting a length of not greater than 3 meters. Each wears a helmet, commonly referred to as a ‘hedgehod’, most likely constructed of leather or hide.   The shields appear to be ¾ crescent shaped and carried in the left hand, with a diameter of no greater than 1 meter. “The round shield on the other hand, was certainly meant for a hand-to-hand fighter.  For him agility and mobility counted for much, and he sacrificed the security of a full-body shield in order to be fast on his feet and to have free use of his offensive arm.” [33] Each warrior also wears torso armor (cuirass) and leg greaves. It is uncertain if this armor were made of bronze, bronze-scale or leather-hide.  In addition, each warrior appears to be carrying supplies attached to his spear, and behind them while a woman waves good-bye.  Although over three millennia old, the vase’s theme of soldiers marching off to war echoes even today.  The adoption of new types of shields, armor and swords (discussed in the earlier section) were combined with some of the previously specialized equipment of light troop types, namely the javelin.  A warrior would carry a short spear or javelins which could be thrown to great effect against chariots.  Following this initial discharge of hurled missiles, a warrior was free to engage in a rapid assault with effective and versatile close combat weapons.

Despite Homer’s assertion in the Iliad the strong fortifications and numerous instances of weapon caches found in grave sites, combined with martial themes represented throughout their societies, “it is highly likely that rival states sought dominance and that feuds, fragile alliances, broken truces, and pitched battles were commonplace.” [34] Regardless of the cause, the collapse resulted in the depopulation of the Mycenaeans from their citadels- the manpower, resources and materials were no longer available to support the large land-based armies of the Palatial Period.  Without a large army to protect them, the citadels were easy prey for bands of fast, well-equipped sea-borne raiders.

Conclusion

As with any treatment or discussion regarding Bronze Age peoples, the availability of evidence or lack thereof is always an important consideration to a historian.  Hypothesis’s must be carefully analyzed and remain flexible in their interpretation(s).  Only by the examination of all available evidence, gathered from a wide range of research and disciples, is it likely to better understand ancient societies like the Mycenaeans.

The Mycenaean warrior of the 12th  century BCE looked very different than his 15th century BCE counterpart, the evolution of which was a result of not only being pushed by the eventual collapse of c. 1200 BCE, but also their innovations in shipbuilding and sword-craft. The Mycenaeans had found a new method of bringing war to their enemies, either at land or at sea…ships.  The Mycenaeans had become seaborne raiders.

 

Bibliography, References & Citations:

Amphoroid Krater. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam. Accessed March 07, 2015. https://www.uvaerfgoed.nl/beeldbank/en/allardpiersonmuseum/xview/?identifier=hdl:11245/3.1473;metadata=chariot.

Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013.

Cline, Eric (editor). The Oxford Handbook of The Bronze Age Aegean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Fields, Nic, and Brian Delf. Bronze Age War Chariots. Oxford: Osprey, 2006.

Fields, Nic, and Donato Spedaliere. Mycenaean Citadels C. 1350-1200 BC. Oxford: Osprey, 2004.

Fields, Nic, Donato Spedaliere, and S. S. Spedaliere. Troy, Ca. 1700-1250 BC. Oxford: Osprey, 2004.

Fragmented (Battle) Fresco. Akrotiri. Accessed March 10, 2015. https://www.studyblue.com/notes/.

Grguric, Nicolas, and Angus McBride. The Mycenaeans: C. 1650-1100 BC. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.

Hartzler, Bruce. Chariot Hunt. Mycenae. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

Hartzler, Bruce. River Battle Fresco. Tiryns. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

Hartzler, Bruce. Siege Rhyton. Mycenae. Accessed March 09, 2015. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

Hartzler, Bruce. Tarzan Fresco. Plylos. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

Hartzler, Bruce. Warrior Vase. Mycenae. Accessed March 04, 2015. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

Ivory Plaque from Delos. Archeaological Museum of Delos. Accessed March 04, 2015. http://www.travel-to-mykonos.com/page.php?page_id=40.

Lion Hunt Dagger. National Museum of Athens, Athens. Accessed March 07, 2015. http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=36524.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Spalinger, Anthony John. War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005.

Weede, Michael. AEGEAN BRONZE AGE SHIP IMAGERY: REGIONALISMS,, 1990, 01-23. Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www2.ulg.ac.be/archgrec/IMG/aegeum/aegaeum7%28pdf%29/Wedde.pdf.

[1] Hartzler, Bruce. Tarzan Fresco. Plylos. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

[2] Hartzler, Bruce. River Battle Fresco. Tiryns. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

[3] Ivory Plaque from Delos. Archeaological Museum of Delos. Accessed March 04, 2015. http://www.travel-to-mykonos.com/page.php?page_id=40.

[4] Grguric, Nicolas, and Angus McBride. The Mycenaeans: C. 1650-1100 BC. Oxford: Osprey (2005), 7.

[5] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers (2013), 31.

[6 & 7] Grguric, Nicolas, and Angus McBride. The Mycenaeans: C. 1650-1100 BC. Oxford: Osprey (2005), 9-10.

[8] Eric Cline, The Oxford Handbook of The Bronze Age Aegean. New York: Oxford University Press (2010), 309-310.

[9] Fragmented Fresco. Akrotiri. Accessed March 10, 2015. https://www.studyblue.com/notes/.

[10] Lion Hunt Dagger. National Museum of Athens, Athens. Accessed March 07, 2015. http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=36524.

[11] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1993), 112.

[12] ibid., 119.

[13] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers (2013), 27-28.

[14A] Hartzler, Bruce. Chariot Hunt. Mycenae. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

[14B] Eric Cline, The Oxford Handbook of The Bronze Age Aegean. New York: Oxford University Press (2010), 312-313.

[15] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1993), 124-125.

[16] Spalinger, Anthony John. War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. (2005), 89-90.

[17] Fields, Nic, and Brian Delf. Bronze Age War Chariots. Oxford: Osprey (2006), 23-24.

[18 & 19] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers (2013), 18.

[20] Hartzler, Bruce. Siege Rhyton. Mycenae. Accessed March 09, 2015. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

[21] Grguric, Nicolas, and Angus McBride. The Mycenaeans: C. 1650-1100 BC. Oxford: Osprey (2005), 25-30.

[22] Amphoroid Krater. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam. Accessed March 07, 2015. https://www.uvaerfgoed.nl/beeldbank/en/allardpiersonmuseum/xview/?identifier=hdl:11245/3.1473;metadata=chariot.

[23] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers (2013), 27-28.

[24] ibid., 38.

[25]Weede, Michael. AEGEAN BRONZE AGE SHIP IMAGERY: REGIONALISMS,, 1990, 73-96. Accessed March 08, 2015. 92. http://www2.ulg.ac.be/archgrec/IMG/aegeum/aegaeum7%28pdf%29/Wedde. pdf.

[26] ibid., 92-93.

[27]Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1993), 174.

[28] ibid., 192-193.

[29] ibid., 203-204.

[30] ibid., 33-35.

[31] ibid., 28.

[32]Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, (2012), 51-52.

[33] Hartzler, Bruce. Warrior Vase. Mycenae. Accessed March 04, 2015. http://hartzler.org/cc307/mycenaean/index.html.

[34] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1993), 178.

[35] Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press (2012), 43-44.

 

 

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About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
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One Response to From Warriors to Raiders: The Evolution of Mycenaean Weapons, Armament & Tactics.

  1. Pingback: Lesson 10: Weapons and Warfare

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