Warfare among the Mycenaeans

This entry is intended as a follow-up to my last blog post on reconstructing ancient Aegean warriors and their connection to the Sea-Peoples. There has been a lot of interest in the latter aspect and I will devote a blog post to these enigmatic invaders in future. However, for now I would like to expand on a particular point raised in the comments section, namely what war may have been like among the Mycenaeans in the period right before the fall of the palaces around 1200 BC. More specifically, why did they not use armour and shields?

The Dendra panoply, dated to the end of the fifteenth century BC, shows that some Mycenaeans back then wore armour. Bits and pieces of this type of armour are known from other places in Greece, as well, showing that this style of “lobster cuirass” was widespread. Ideograms from Linear B also attest to the use of this armour in at least Knossos (probably around 1400 BC as well); the signs are also encountered on tablets in Pylos that are of later date, around 1200 BC. Perhaps some continued to wear this armour at that stage still, but if so, it must not have been common, since no evidence for its use has been confirmed either archaeologically or iconographically at that late a stage in Mycenaean history.

Perhaps the ideogram, based on the older cuirass, came to stand more generally for cuirass, corslet or any type of armour. It is also possible that it was used to indicate simply the core feature of the lobster cuirass, which were the front and back plates that protected the wearer’s torso. This simpler cuirass may still have been in use throughout the Mycenaean era and probably spread toward Continental Europe, from whence it was reintroduced in the eighth century BC in Greece. The bell-shaped cuirass unearthed in a tomb at Argos and dated to the late eighth century is actually identical in basic shape, but has a flanged rim at the bottom that gives it its distinctive name. This is one example of continuity from the Mycenaean age to the historical period.

Shields are not attested at all for the thirteenth century BC, except as decorative elements, such as the small, gold figure-of-eight shields used for necklaces and unearthed in a house in Mycenae. Earlier, we have depictions on, for example, the Mycenaean hunt dagger, which shows men with Minoan-inspired tower shields and figure-of-eight shields hunting lion. But for the heyday of the Mycenaean palace civilization, we have no evidence for the use of shields at all. Strangely enough, shields do reappear on pottery of the mid-twelfth century, including shields obviously adopted from the Hittites.

What we have, then, for the thirteenth century, is evidence of warriors that did not use body-armour, apart from (boar’s-tusk) helmets and what appear to be linen gaiters, and they also did not use shields. In frescoes, we see two different types of warriors: men in kilts and often bare chests, fighting with spears and short swords, and men in waisted tunics, usually equipped with spears and often associated with chariots.

The men in the chariots are undoubtedly the heqetai attested in the Linear B tablets. They belong to the nobility. The other men are the rank-and-file; these may very well have been levies, conscripted in a similar manner as in the ancient Near East. There is evidence from the Linear B tablets that theheqetai had to muster troops, presumably through levies among the peasants working their land, and then also partially supply them, with the palace giving out some pieces of equipment as a sign of good will. As a result, it seems very likely that a typical Mycenaean army consisted largely of cheaply-equipped conscripts, and there may have been no need for the heqetai to wear armour, or perhaps only a minority – some of the commanders, for example, or the wanax (king) himself – did.

Depictions of battles tend to focus on smaller skirmishes, such as the famous Tarzan Fresco from Pylos, showing Pylian soldiers in kilts fighting against “savages”, men with unkempt hair and clothed in animal skins. The battles tend to be close-range affairs; bow and arrows were known and undoubtedly used, but they are not shown in action. Instead, battles seem more akin to wrestling matches, with men grabbing hold of long thrusting spears and trying to kill their enemies with short swords. The short swords themselves are interesting: early in the Mycenaean period, these tend to be long and rather fragile things. But as time went on, they got shorter and sturdier; the perfect weapon for close-range combat. By contrast, the dominant sword of the Early Iron Age – the Naue II-type sword – introduced probably a little before the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, was a relatively long, cut-and-thrust weapon, ideally suited to reach over and behind shields, for example.

At the same time, the thirteenth century BC saw huge activity with regard to fortifications. The walls of Mycenae were extended and improved in the second half of the thirteenth century, and similar building projects were undertaken elsewhere. However, there is no archaeological evidence of any large sieges at around the same time, and the Mycenaean palaces were only destroyed and/or abandoned in the years around 1200 BC, when the whole of the eastern Mediterranean was rocked by instability and upheaval, as noted in the previous post.

What seems to be the case, in my opinion, is that in the thirteenth century BC there was a kind of balance of power between the major Mycenaean centres that precluded any prolonged or very destructive wars. Wars, instead, tended to focus on border skirmishes, such as those depicted in the Pylian frescoes. In other instances, Mycenaeans appear to have engaged in raids; the unrest in Wilusan, referred to briefly in the previous blog post, may be connected to this. As such, the armies of the Mycenaean palaces need not have been very sophisticated, obfuscating the need for large amounts of armour and even shields. The simple equipment used by the conscripts were no doubt more than sufficient for the task at hand, and perhaps only the noble commanders occasionally wore pieces of metal armour.

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