Mycenaean warriors and the Sea-Peoples

Recently, Jesper van den Berg posed two related questions on our Facebook page. The first was on the reconstruction of Mycenaean warriors in my book Henchmen of Ares, which were specifically contrasted with reconstructions offered by Andrea Salimbeti. The second question concerned the so-called “Sea-Peoples”, known from Egyptian monuments, and whether or not these included Aegean warriors.

Reconstructing Aegean warriors

The main problem regarding Aegean warriors concerns the use of metal armour and shields in the period prior to the fall of the Mycenaean palaces around 1200 BC. Some people take the Homeric epics as historical documents that contain useful information about the period around 1200 BC and extrapolate from that. In the Iliad, warriors wear metal body-armour, greaves and helmets with “nodding crests”, and they invariably possess large shields.

But do the Homeric epics reflect the world of the Mycenaean Bronze Age? There are undoubtedly elements that date back to that period, as I explain in Henchmen of Ares. A war between Greeks (Mycenaeans) in the north-west of Asia Minor is plausible, and there are some Hittite sources – again, referred to in the book – that show unrest in a region known as Wilusa, which can most probably be identified with the Greek Ilion (Troy). Even some of the political geography in Greece dates back to the Bronze Age: Mycenae was a small town in the Archaic and Classical periods, so the kingdom of Agamemnon must have been something passed on orally from one generation to the next.

As always, however, the devil is in the details. When we look at the actual social structure, we find little that is very similar to the bureaucratic structures of the Mycenaean kingdoms. The palaces of the kings look more like large farmhouses. Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca has geese waddling about and a dung heap near the entrance, where the hero’s old dog recognizes his disguised master before expiring. In no way does it resemble a Mycenaean palace. There are no archives, no scribes, no officials to deal with storage and the production of vast amounts of, for example, oil or wine. It resembles more closely the structures known archaeologically from the eighth and seventh centuries BC.

Homer probably lived around 700 BC and it comes as no surprise that most of the physical artefacts and structures in his works resemble those of his own age, including the equipment of his heroes. Metal cuirasses are known from Argos as early as the late eighth century BC, and metal helmets were introduced around that time, too, perhaps from Assyria. The large shields in the Homeric epics all appear to be round and are quite compatible with shields known from Geometric and Archaic Greek pottery. Hans van Wees has even argued that some shields may, in fact, be Argive (hoplite) shields, with a double-grip. The presence of a “Mycenaean” boar’s-tusk helmet in the Iliad might be an heirloom or a find from a tomb that a farmer stumbled upon and that Homer saw at some point.

For the thirteenth century BC, we have no evidence at all of metal body-armour or shields. These are features of the earlier Mycenaean epoch – for example, the bronze lobster cuirass from a tomb at Dendra – or of the period after the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, especially the middle of the twelfth century BC. For the Mycenaean era itself, we have warriors in waisted tunics with spears, short swords, and boar’s-tusk helmets. They are never shown wearing metal armour or using shields. A fresco from Pylos that was once thought to depict a round shield was wrongly reconstructed. This is not to say that metal armour was not used at all, but simply that it doesn’t appear to have been as common as is often thought, and reconstructions showing Mycenaean warriors of ca. 1200 BC universally clad in bronze from head to toe and brandishing shields are probably wrong.

The mysterious “Sea-Peoples”

As regards the “Sea-Peoples”, the designation derives from Egyptian sources. We know that Egypt suffered from attacks by these people, especially during the reign of Ramesses III (r. 1186–1155 BC). The entire eastern Mediterranean was suffering from instability around 1200 BC. In the first half of the twelfth century BC, several civilizations crumbled, including the Mycenaean palace civilization and the Hittite Empire, and some city-states were destroyed, such as Ugarit in Syria. (See also Ancient Warfare IV.4.)

The Sea-Peoples are sometimes thought to have caused the downfall of the Mycenaean palaces. Certainly, human agency was involved, since many of the palaces show signs of burning. But whether the “Sea-Peoples” were responsible for all this, or just a symptom of more widespread unrest, is an open question. It is quite possible that various factors – natural disaster such as famine or epidemic, rebellions, political strife, and so on – conspired to create a situation in which some people decided to turn to the sea. Some scholars have suggested that the Mycenaeans later formed the “Sea-Peoples” or that part of them joined the “Sea-Peoples” on their trek through the eastern Mediterranean.

Some of the names used to denote some groups by the Egyptians are suggestive of particular ethnonyms. The “Sherden”, for example, may be identified with peoples from Sardinia. There are some suggestive figurines – al dated to the ninth or eighth centuries BC in the conventional chronology – that are very similar to Egyptian depictions of these people. The “Meshwesh” were people from Libya. Most interestingly, the “Ekwesh” have been compared to the Achaeans (Greeks) from Homer, who may have been known to the Hittites, as recorded in documents recovered from the archives of their capital at Hattusa, as the “Ahhiyawa”. Similarly, the “Denyen” might be identified with the Danaans, another term used by Homer to denote the Greeks.

What we have, then, is a lot of suggestive data. The Sea-Peoples were either a disruptive force in the eastern Mediterranean after ca. 1200 BC or a symptom of some other problem (or perhaps both). The Sea-Peoples included a variety of different people from different places, probably including Sardinia and Mycenaean Greece. The depictions of warriors on the walls of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu resemble particular peoples, like the Mycenaeans. As a result, it is possible to reconstruct some events in broad strokes, even if the exact causes of the unrest in the eastern Mediterranean remain mysterious (famine? plague? social unrest?), and many of the details are frustratingly vague.

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