The Design of the Palace

Approached through a large, open court, a covered porch, and a vestibule, there lies the large central room of the palace complex, called the “megaron,” in which the king of Mycenae held court and conducted the affairs of state. In the middle of its floor is a large circular hearth surrounded by four columns which supported the roof. Against the no-longer extant south wall the king probably had his(1) throne. As Vermeule has Justly observed, most people pay little attention to, and retain scant recollection of architectural details,(2) yet the LH palace designers obviously drew much inspiration from one another. Thus of the three best preserved LH III palaces at Tiryns, Pylos and Mycenae, the thronerooms all bear distinct similarities to each other, with those at Pylos and Mycenae almost identical in dimensions and arrangements.(3) Since all three are roughly contemporary, separated only by geography, one assumes that, like their counterparts of the classical period, the LH architects made the relatively short journeys to study older plans and/or to design new buildings.

A more difficult problem presents itself when we consider that the throne rooms of those thirteenth-century palaces also bear many strking resemblances to the decoration, construction techniques, and the arrangement of eighth-seventh century temples. Despite the intervening gap, numerous authorities have sought to establish a direct connection between the eighth-seventh century temples and the 500-year-older palaces.(4) Since a structure, which many scholars consider to be a seventh-century temple, rests directly above, copies the alignment and utilizes some of the features of the megaron of the palace at Tiryns, and since a number of archaeologists have felt that the later building succeeded the throne room immediately after its destruction, some writers therefore conjectured that the palace survived intact during those intervening centuries, and provided the required model for later builders.

There are problems with that notion, however. Some authorities regard the later structure as a dwelling of the twelfth century, rather than a temple of the seventh,(5) whose existence on the site is certain, but whose location would then be undetected. Even those who do identify the structure with the temple generally concede that it is highly unlikely that the palace stood intact during the intervening half millennium. If it did survive the end of the Mycenaean Age, it must have been uninhabited, since there is no evidence of any occupation of the entire upper city, upon which the palace stood, from the late thirteenth century until the late eighth; there is also strong circumstantial evidence that the palace itself perished ca. 1200 B.C. in the same wave of conflagrations which destroyed Mycenae, Pylos and other seats of Mycenaean power, and which razed the rest of the upper city of Tiryns itself.(6)

With the case for continuity at Tiryns “problematical”,(7) some authors have speculated that LH palaces may have survived intact for centuries in some other part of the Mycenaean world, which escaped the fate of the Peloponnesian centers. They therefore look to Athens and the Ionian coast of Turkey, since neither area fell victim to Dorian immigrants, whom many authorities have, blamed for the destruction of Mycenaean civilization; and both became centers of refuge for Mycenaean Greeks, including artists, craftsmen and royal families, who fled their afflicted homelands. In such areas, under such circumstances, one would reasonably expect the old way of life, with its characteristic art, architecture, customs and institutions (such as palaces), to continue without the interruption that characterizes the Peloponnese.

Greek tradition maintained that the colonization of Ionia was a result of the Dorian invasion, occurring in some cases immediately, or, at most, a couple of generations thereafter;(8) it further ascribed the foundations of the Ionian settlements to princes who were, no doubt, accustomed to dwelling in palaces. During the late Archaic Period Ionia was a thriving center of science, philosophy and literature, which played a large part in inaugurating the classical age of Greece. Furthermore, that region has the strongest claim for the honor of producing Homer, and presumbaly for keeping alive the memory of Mycenaean civilization which he chronicled. Since his epics contain detailed descriptions of LH palaces, which have struck numerous scholars as extremely accurate in their intimate knowledge of Mycenaean architecture (a matter to which we shall presently turn),(9) and since fourth century Ionian architects constructed buildings reminiscent of LH III palaces, it seemed, for all these reasons, quite possible that such edifices survived in Ionia.(10)

The facts are, however, that there is very little archaeological evidence for Greek settlement of that region prior to the eighth century—a date in keeping with some literary accounts—(11) and Ionia seems to have been a cultural backwater prior to its seemingly sudden bloom during the seventh century.(12) It has produced no evidence of palaces or of large buildings of any kind during the Mycenaean period or the subsequent Dark Age—only small, dingy, single storey, single-room dwellings made of pebbles, mud-brick, poles and thatch, whose very attribution to Greeks, rather than native Anatolians, one can question. (13)

Discouraged by the picture from Ionia, but still inclined toward architectural continutiy, some scholars have more recently looked to Athens,(14) which also escaped the Dorian onslaught and immediately received numerous Mycenaean refugees, including artisans and royal families. Unlike Ionia, Athens had been a sizeable center of Mycenaean civilization, and had an LH III palace on its own acropolis. Unlike the other LH city states of the Peloponnese, there is no evidence that Athens’ palace, or any part of the city, caught fire or fell victim to barbarians. Also, unlike practically every other contemporary site, there is ample proof of the continuous occupation of the city throughout the Dark Age. There is a native tradition that kings (who permanently dwelled in a apalce) governed the city long after the Dorians conquered the other Mycenaean centers, and apparently as late as the eighth or early seventh century.(15) Finally, we know that the Athenians, like the people of Mycenae and Tiryns, erected an archaic temple over the LH III palace—a circumstance which conforms to the Homeric references to one structure replacing its predecessor.(16) Here, at least, one would expect the retention of Mycenaean civilization, whatever befell Athens’ less fortunate neighbors.

What constantly surprises and perplexes archaeologists is that Athens, the one place where one should find continuity of culture is the very place which, without any obvious reason, changed most drastically, abandoning its Mycenaean characteristics more quickly and more completely than every other region. While the old ways lingered on in the severely struck Peloponnese., Athens suddenly and inexplicably adopted a material culture and customs which scarcely resemble their immediate predecessors in Athens or their contemporary counterparts elsewhere in Greece,(17) but which in art, architecture, dress, burial customs, standard of living, etc., seen more closely akin to antecedents now placed 500 years earlier. Vermeule once stated that “without being burned, Athens faded away exactly like ore obviously destroyed sites; neither architecture nor art continued, only people.”(18) More recently, H. Robertson likewise concluded that by the end of the Mycenaean Age “in Greece the greatest cities were all devastated; and even in places which, like Athens escaped the destruction, there is no monuiasntal building, and the tradition of the major arts—architecture, sculpture, painting—dies out. This seems to be absolutely true” throughout the Greek world.(19)

The tradition of a continuous kingship until the period of temple construction conflicts with an equally firm account that it died out towards the end of the Mycenaean Age, several centuries earlier—the two seemingly contradictory accounts, as we noted for Olympia, becoming unsatisfactorily conflated.(20) The case for continuous occupation of the palace until its replacement by the archaic temple is almost precisely like that for Tiryns. Although people have inhabited Athens without any major interruption for the past 5,000 years, residing on the acropolis itself throughout early prehistory, and establishing a sizeable settlement thereon during the Mycenaean Period; and despite the fact that the settlement was neither invaded nor destroyed, its residents apparently deserted the entire upper city and the end of the Bronze Age.(21)

That abandonment, not only poses a difficulty for those wishing to extend the duration of the palace’s use, but raises even greater questions. Since one can find traces of every other period of human activity on the Acropolis from the Neolithic Age until today; since, by its very nature, it was well fortified—the more so when, during the Mycenaean Period, the Athenians ringed the summit with massive stone wall which, in some areas, still stands today;(22) and since scholars generally portray the Dark Age as a period of anxiety and fear, one must wonder why it was precisely then that the people abandoned their bastion and moved to a “relatively unprotected” low-lying area “where there had been no previous Mycenaean buildings.” “Astonishingly”, whereas the Athenians seem to have forsaken their former stronghold, they followed the same practice as the Dark Age folk at Tiryns and Mycenae, using their deserted settlement solely as a place to inter a few of their dead.(23) As was true of the graves inside Mycenae’s citadel, one might consider it “extremely unlikely” that people, who did not live on the acropolis, whould scale it only to use it for burials,(24) especially since they then had a cemetery nearer their homes and in much softer ground.(25) Again, one should note that they used the same type of cist tombs on the acropolis as those in the same general area, but supposedly dug 500 years earlier.(26) Because of all those considerations, scholars generally conclude that even though Athens was not invaded or destroyed, its palace still ceased to be occupied after the end of the Bronze Age.(27) Neither is there any evidence that a new palace or mansion replaced the old palace, nor, in fact, that the Athenians erected any large-scale structures after the twelfth century and before the late seventh.(28)

Even if Tiryns’ palace miraculously escaped the blaze that, incinerated the rest of its citadel, and that palace and/or the one at Athena stood intact, though abandoned, after the end of the Mycenaean period, and even if other palaces still remain to be found at a later date (perhaps in Ionia), their very style of construction with rather thin walls, comprised of tremendous amounts of wood, snail stones and clay, would render them, in the words of one author, “an insurance company’s nightmare.”(29) The frequent seismic shocks of the region, termites, rot, crumbling clay, inclement seasons or some subsequent fire, singly or in any combination, would probably have reduced them to heaps of debris long before five centuries would have transpired.(30) Since eighth-seventh century temples still had a ground plan and other artistic and architectural details similar to those of the throne-rooms of Mycenaean palaces, which a few of those temples definitely overlay at Tiryns (?), Mycenae and Athens, some scholars decided that there must be a direct relationship, They have suggested that if the later architects did not see the palaces while they still remained intact, then they probably returned to the sites where the palaces had stood five centuries earlier and, poking through the piles of debris (cement-hard in many cases), discerned the older arrangement and details, liked them, and decided to reproduce them.(31) The fact is, however, that the later Greek architects “revived” the LH III arrangement before they erected temples over the Mycenaean palaces—even before people seem to have returned to the sites of those palaces—, and constructed their first monumental temples at places that had no palaces.(32)

Some suggest that the type may have persited during the intervening period in monumental, rectilinear buildings of stone, which have so far eluded discovery. but most scholars reject that notion, because the examples of Dark Age architecture, which we do know, are not similar to the structures of either the thirteenth century or the eighth, but rather look back to buildings 500 years earlier still.(33) As they do with other phenomena which seem to show 500-year “revivals,” some authors have suggested that the type did survive, but only in wood, which has long since vanished.(34) Such hypothetical structures should nevertheless have left at least :some trace, even if only of their contents (e.g., pottery), and their post holes and wall trenches, but none has come to light. Additionally, in a land like Greece where massive rock formations, field stones and clay are far more common than suitable trees, the Greeks have always preferred to use those substances—which do leave traces—to the scarcer commodity; but, even if they did erect perishable buildings, it was their practice to make at least the foundation of stone to support the wall, and to safeguard against rot and erosion. The lack of evidence of large-scale aegaron-shaped structures to span the centuries between the thirteenth-century palaces and the eighth-century temples thus seems significant.(35) Faced with those difficulties, some authorities have expressed an opinion that, by the time the canonical megaron returned to Greek architecture in the eighth-century temples, their builders must have lost all recollection of the Mycenaean palace. Nevertheless, the similar arrangement troubled them.(36)

Since most authorities now consider it highly unlikely that an LH III palace survived intact to inspire eighth-century builders; since those builders reproduced the megaron plan before they returned even to the ruins of the earlier palaces; and since one can trace no tradition of similar structures to bridge the gap—yet the eighth-century temples still resemble LH III throne rooms—one is left with two options. The first is to view the similarities as superficial or insignificant or coincidental. Experts, however, seem unanimous in considering the correspondences very close in many details, so that, in whatever way they try to explain them, they find them difficult, if not impossible, to attribute to mere chance.(37) Finally, some who view all the other alternatives as unproveable, improbable or impossible, have proposed another explanation. As in the case of the built tombs of the Mycenaean Age and their nearly identical, but 500-year-later, counterparts of the ninth-seventh centuries (p. 13 above), they have suggested that Greek temples simply evolved from similar origins as, and in the same manner as, Mycenaean palaces, following a parallel development, separated by a 500-year gap, which precludes a conscious revival or even a direct survival of form.(38) But even proponents of that notion admit that it is intrinsically “less satisfying” than the other theories which they reject.(39)

For some reason(s) not fully understood, not universally accepted and not especially satisfying even to their proponents, the eighty-seventh century inhabitant of Mycenae and most of the Greek world decided to erect temples over the heaps of rubble of bygone palaces and religious centers, returned to fresco painting, somehow regained the lost skills of stone cutting, engineering, solid geometry and ashlar masonry, and copied the architectural details of LH III thronerooms—all after a 500-year period during which their predecessors made no similar attempts.


  1. The southeastern portion of the room has long since collapsed down the steep scarp of the ravine. Some (e.g., H. Wace et. al., Mycenae Guide [Meriden, Conn., 1971], p. 40, pls. C.P.) feel that the throne was in a separate room to the west of the court, but Mylonas (1972, pp. 30-31) believes that to be a guest room; by analogy to the completely preserved LH III palaces, he reconstructs the throne room in the megaron.

  2. Vermeule, (1972), p. 186.

  3. Mylonas, (1966), p.63 and fig. 16; Graham, (1900), p. 52 and fig. 12

  4. Cf. above “The Religious Center of Mycenae,” n. 5.

  5. C. Blegen, Korakou (New York, 1921), pp. 132-133.

  6. Cf. above “The Entrance to the Citadel,” n. 13 and “The Palace,” n. 13, and below, section Tiryns, for a fuller discussion (first published as Isaacson, [1974]).

  7. Snodgrass, (1971), p. 398.

  8. Ibid., p. 302; cf. n. 11 below.

  9. Cf. n. below.

  10. D. Gray, “Houses in the Odyssey,” Classical Quarterly N. S. 5 (195), pp. I, II; cf. G. Kirl, The Songs of Homer (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 111-112; Lorimer, (1950), p. 430.

  11. C. Whitman (1958, pp. 49-51, 322-323, ns. 16-21) made that assessment over twenty years ago. J.M. Cook conceded that most early evidence seemed to indicate an eighth-century date, but stated that new discoveries pushed the event back into the tenth century B.C. (“Greek Archaeology in Western Asia Minor,” Archaeological Reports for 1959-1960, p. 40), an assessment oft-repeated by Cook (e.g., “Greek Settlement in the Eastern Aegean and Asia Minor,” CAH3 11,2 [1975], pp. 780, 785) and echoed by others (e.g., Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 127, 329, 373; Desborough, (1972, pp. 183-184).
    The fact is, as Cook’s brother realized (1972, p. 11) that the amount tenth-century material is rather meager to represent the major colonization which tradition attests. Besides those early imports need not indicate a Greek settlement as opposed to being trade goods sent to the natives (cf. the far larger quantities of LH III A-3 pottery found in Cyprus and sixth-century Athenian ware found in Etruria). Most instructive in that regard are the instance of Protogeometric pottery found in native Anatolian graves (Desborough, ibid., p. 184) and the situation at Smyrna, where Cook interpreted the vast quantity of “Grey Ware” ceramics as belonging to Greek settlers (ibid, [1975], pp. 780, 785), while Coldstream (1968, pp. 338-339) and Desborough (ibid., pp. 183-154) more reasonably judge them to belong to the indigenous population.
    Despite the more recent discoveries and literature, the situation is still closest to Whitman’s assessment—viz., that there is no compelling evidence for actual Greek colonization prior to the eighth century. Therefore the statement by the seventh-century Ionian poet Mimnermus that “we” came from Neleid Pylos to Colophon, and then sacked Smyrna (ca. 688 B.C.) (quotation in Strabo XIV.l.4) and Thucydides’ pairing (1.12.4) of the Ionian migration with the late eighth century colonization of Sicily and Italy take on a new interest. Although modern scholars (e.g., Webster, (1964), p. 148; Snodgrass, (1971), p. 8) regard both accounts as highly compressed, since they take no account of the half millennium which supposedly intervened, they follow the same trend as other classical references which we have noted and shall note, which seem to indicate a centuries-later assignment for many events currently dated according to Egyptian chronology.

  12. Whitman, loc. cit.; Notopoulos, (1960), pp. 185-186, n. 27.

  13. J.M. Cook, The Greeks in Ionia and the East (New York, 1963), pp. 31-32; Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 369-370, 413; Desborough, 1972, pp. 183, 262. For the question of who the inhabitants then were, cf. n. 11 above.

  14. E.g., Hope-Simpson-Lazenby, (1970), p. 2.

  15. C. Hignett, A History of the Athenian Constitution (Oxford, 1958), pp. 38-46.

  16. Cp. Od. VII. 50-81, where Athena enters the house (sc. palace) of Erechtheus to Il. II. 526-551 where Erechtheus was placed in her temple. Cf. Webster, (1962), pp. 454-455 and idem, (1964), pp. 107, 143.

  17. T.G. Skeat, The Dorians in Archaeology (London, 1939), pp. 62-63; Demargne, (1964), p. 287; Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 31-40, 123, 134-135, U3-153, 179, 3U-316, 326-329; Desborough, 1972, pp. 32-33, 64-67, 76-79, 81-82, 106-111, 269-271, 293.

  18. Vermeule, (1960), p. 71.

  19. Robertson, (1975), p. 14; cf. Desborough, 1972, p. 289.

  20. Hignett, (1958), pp. 38-46. Two other Athenian traditions regarding the unification of Attica and Athens’ participation in a religio-political league on the island of Calauria (Poros) have similarly split modern scholars into two opposing camps, championing either the Mycenaean Age or the ninth-seventh centuries (for useful, though by no means exhaustive summaries of each case, cf. respectively, R.A. Padgug, “Eleusis and the Union of Attica,” GRBS, 13 [1972], pp. 135-150, and T. Kelly, “The Calaurian Amphictiony,” AJA, 70 [1966], pp. 113-122, esp. pp. 116-117 for the “striking” lack of continuity between thirteenth and eighth century remains).

  21. Broneer, (1939), pp. 427-428; Iden, “What Happened at Athens,” AJA 52 (1948), p. 114; Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 31, 316, 363; S. Immerwahr, The Athenian Agora XIII; The Neolithic and Bronze Ages (Princeton, 1971), pp. 154-155; J. Travlos, Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Athens (London, 1971), pp. 52-53; Desborough, (1972), p. 64; Tomlinson, (1976), pp. 78-80.
    After the twelfth-century abandonment, the next evidence of architecture and cult activity on the acropolis belongs to the seventh century (Travlos and Tomlinson). The earliest post-Mycenaean pottery belongs to the ninth-eighth centuries (Coldstream, (1968), pp. 13, n. 2, 55, 399); but it is of interest that those ceramic finds come from the fountain, where they were mixed with, and lay beneath, pure Mycenaean war (Broneer, 1939), and from the area of the Parthenon, where they lay in the same “well defined” deposit as Mycenaean ware (W. Dinsmoor, “The Date of the Older Parthenon,” AJA 38 (1934), pp. 416-417, 426).

  22. Scholars, who noted the similarity of that wall (The Pelargikon) to the earliest defences of Acrocorinth, sought to date them both to the Mycenaean Age. R, Carpenter (in Carpenter and A. Bon, Corinth III.2; The Defences of Acrocorinth and the lower Town [Cambridge, Mass., 1936], pp. 30-34 and n. 1), who also saw the resemblance— but could not assign the latter fortification earlier than the seventh century, decided to downdate the Pelargikon accordingly. O. Broneer (1939), p, 423, n. 177) showed that the Athenian wall did belong to the Mycenaean Age, 30 that now one must interpose an interval of ca. 600 years (during which time the Greeks built nothing comparable) between the two similar fortification systems—a situation which we shall encounter again regarding the Cyclopean bridge at Mycenae (ns. below).

  23. Desborough, (1972), p. 64; Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 202, 316.

  24. Cf. ns. 5-6 above.

  25. Desborough, (1972), p. 64; Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 145-151.

  26. For MH graves on the acropolis, cf. Travlos, (1971), p. 57, fig. 67. For the similarity of the earliest post-Mycenaean graves to their pre-Mycenaean counterparts, cf. above “Dark Age Burials,” n. 2.

  27. E.g. Immaerwahr, (1971), pp. 154-155. Because Athens looms so large in every discussion of post-Mycenaean Greece, it has seemed appropriate to mention some of its problems not directly related to Mycenae’s palace; we shall return to it when considering other sites at the end of this treatise.

  28. Cf. ns. 18-19, 21 above.

  29. L. Pomerance, The Final Collapse of Santorini (Thera) (Götteborg, 1971), p. 17.

  30. Ibid., pp. 16-17; Blegen, (1921), pp. 132-133; Mylonas, (1966), p. 49.

  31. Mylonas, ibid., pp. 51-52; H. Plommer, “Shadowy Megara,” JHS 97 (1977), p. 82.

  32. Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 409-412, 422-424.

  33. Cf. above “The Religious Center of Mycenae,” ns. 6-7.

  34. E.g., G. Rodenwaldt, “Zur Entstehung der Monumentalen Architektur in Griechenland, Ath. Mitt., 44 (1919), pp. 179-180.

  35. Cf. Tomlinson, (1976), pp. 15, 20-22, 28, 32.

  36. Rodenwaldt, (1919), pp. 179-180; idem, “Mykenische Studien I,” JdI, 34 (1919), p. 95 and n. 2; Dinsmoor, (1950), p. 58.

  37. Cf. “The Religious Center of Mycenae,” n. 5 and n. 35 above.

  38. Dinsmoor, (1950), pp. 35, 57-58; Tomlinson, (1976), p. 28.

  39. Tomlinson, loc, cit. Cf. pp. 20-22 that, though continuity seems unlikely after a gap of centuries, it still offers “an attractive hypothesis.”