BMCR 2006.12.22

The Tomb of Agamemnon

, The tomb of Agamemnon. Wonders of the world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. 201 pages : illustrations, map ; 19 cm.. ISBN 0674021703. $19.95.

The Tomb of Agamemnon, unlike other monuments (the Parthenon, Alhambra, Westminster Abbey, the Temple of Jerusalem, the Colosseum) in the attractive “Wonders of the World” series to which this book belongs, is a figment of the imagination. The vivid imaginings of Aeschylus in antiquity and of Heinrich Schliemann in modern times have profoundly shaped our conception of Bronze Age Greece. Gere’s elegantly succinct and enlightening book in fact takes for its subject an assemblage of the iconic archaeological remains and their poetic archetypes or analogues: the Bronze Age citadel of Mycenae with its Lion Gate, cyclopean walls, palace, royal grave circle, nearby tholos tombs, and the spectacular grave goods on display in the National Museum at Athens. Whether or not any person called Agamemnon ever actually lived, died, and was buried in the citadel at Mycenae, these items of Greek cultural inheritance have always been inextricably bound up with his name. Gere reconstructs the history and significance of Mycenae in the literary and archaeological records and astutely examines why the place and its denizens have so gripped the collective consciousness of the West through the centuries: “This is a story about the power of stories: for twenty-eight centuries the Iliad has peopled the ruins of Bronze Age Mycenae with the ghosts of the House of Atreus. Agamemnon was Homer’s Lord of Warlords, and the questions that were asked of him, century upon century, were always about the meaning of war, about hatred and anger and revenge, about murderous competitiveness for resources, about the human spilling of human blood” (23-24).

In Chapter 1, “Narnia on the Peloponnese” (1-24), Gere launches her story with a description of the intriguing Mask of Agamemnon (“the Mona Lisa of prehistory,” 1), as it strikes the visitor to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. As a lead-in to her study in reception history, Gere gives the particulars of the epic tales of antiquity and of the dramatic archaeological discoveries of modern times, outlining “the highly productive career” of the non-existent Tomb of Agamemnon from ancient times to the revelations by Heinrich Schliemann and his successors.

Chapter 2, “The Cult of the Hero and the Agony of War” (25-46), notes that, indicative of his eminence in a tradition of epic poetry culminating in Homer, a cult commemorating Agamemnon was in place “not during [Mycenae’s] Late Bronze Age heyday, but a little over 400 years later, when the ruins of the citadel walls stood higher than anything human-made in the surrounding landscape, attesting to a way of life that had passed away completely” (25, 27). Gere provides a good, brief account of the general role of heroic cult in archaic Greek culture. In a warrior society like that of ancient Greece, Agamemnon and the other figures of Trojan War legend enjoyed great prestige in the popular imagination. This was so even though Mycenae itself became merely another, rather insignificant, city-state in the political dynamics of classical Greece, controlled by its dominating neighbor, Argos. “Bronze Age Mycenae…was to classical Greece what classical Greece would eventually become to nineteenth-century Europe, a place whose ancient history, legendary reputation and symbolic importance stood in poignant contrast to its present political impotence, a place that sometimes seemed to belong to everyone except itself” (34).

Naturally, Gere gives due attention to the “very high cultural profile” of Agamemnon and his family in fifth-century tragedy, especially Aeschylus’s Oresteia. She then rounds out her discussion of Mycenae in antiquity: its third-century re-emergence as a defensive outpost of Argos, replete with refurbished shrines of Ares and Agamemnon and its abandonment for good in the wake of Roman ascendancy over old Greece beginning in the second-century BC. The place was now just one more, albeit fascinating, stop in the second-century AD travel book of Pausanias, after whose visit “a millennium and a half of silence fell over the ruins of Mycenae” (47).

Chapter 3, “Mycenae Enlightened” (47-59), takes up the reappearance of Mycenae in European minds after 1700, when “a Venetian engineer, scouring the locality for stone with which to build the massive fortress that still stands on the Palamidi rock in Nauplion, started to dismantle the debris, uncovering the Lion Gate. Mycenae had reappeared” (48). The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw visits, sporadic excavation, and accounts of them by rapacious treasure-hunters, for example, Michel Fourmont, the infamous Lord Elgin, and members of the Society of Dilettanti (founded 1734), whose taste for pagan antiquities drew them to Ottoman Greece. “Immediately after the War of Independence, Mycenae’s location in the romantic-nationalist heart of post-Ottoman Europe made it a convenient symbol either of revolution or of monarchical counter-revolution, depending on the political tastes of the visitor” (58). In 1841, the newly established Greek Archaeological Society cleared the approach to the Lion Gate but, lacking funds, did little else at the site.

Chapter 4, “Agamemnon Awakened” (60-80), is a nifty retelling of the familiar story of that self-taught true believer Heinrich Schliemann and his career as a pioneer archaeologist at Troy and Mycenae. Gere handles the millionaire self-promoter and predatory excavator of the wonders of Homeric Greece with due caution, well aware of the important demythologizing, nay, vilifying exposés by David Traill1 and William Calder.2 She conveys the spectacular impression of Schliemann’s excavations (with Wilhelm Dörpfeld’s corrections and refinements) in the worlds of scholarship and popular culture. Whatever the shortcomings and malfeasances evident in Schliemann’s work, “Agamemnon was now flesh and blood, a legend resurrected, an ancient hero awakened to fight the wars of modernity” (80).

Chapter 5, “Saviour or Antichrist?” (81-94), elaborates further on the effects of Schliemann’s discoveries within the cultural and political climate of late nineteenth-century Europe. Prominent here, for example, is the British struggle with the “Eastern Question” vis-à-vis “the Ottoman empire as a bulwark against the expansion of Russia in central Asia and eastern Europe” (83). An early champion of Schliemann was no other than William Gladstone, who, besides being prime minister (with a philhellenic take on the Eastern Question), was an accomplished Homeric scholar (of sorts), “the absolute embodiment of the English love affair with Schliemann’s Agamemnon” and “a Homeric literalist who outstripped Schliemann himself in his imaginative powers and his tendentious reconstructions” (85, 87). Gere also treats here the co-option of Schliemann’s findings by proponents (especially Emile Burnouf, a friend of Schliemann and director of the French School at Athens) of a virulent racist ideology that sought to prove the Aryan origins of Christianity and to claim Homer’s heroes as true Aryan blood kin of modern Europeans. This sinister strain of the late nineteenth-century Zeitgeist is evident in the work of much better known figures as well, like Friedrich Nietzsche, erstwhile professor of Greek at Basel (see 92-93, on “Aryanised Homeric heroes” in his On the Genealogy of Morality). In this context, the swastika, a symbol found in Schliemann’s excavations, was taken for an icon of the Aryan race (much more on this in chapter 7).

Before tracing the twentieth-century deployment of the Aryan myth and its supposed relevance to Mycenaean material, Gere turns in chapter 6, “The Birth of the Bronze Age” (95-116), to the emerging specialty of Bronze Age archaeology. She appraises the invaluable work of Christos Tsountas, who, though he somewhat neglected the value of pottery, put Mycenaean archaeology on a much sounder footing: “[Tsountas’s] The Mycenaean Age was the first work of synthesis that delineated a vision of the Bronze Age as a whole” (97). The early decades of the twentieth century saw Arthur Evans’s addition of the Minoan culture on Crete to the archaeological story of the Bronze Age. While Evans believed in a Minoan thalassocracy and colonization of the Greek mainland, the Briton Alan Wace and the American Carl Blegen saw Minoan-Mycenaean relations differently; Blegen argued that “the Mycenaeans had a separate trajectory, culturally dominated by Crete in their early days but politically and militarily ascendent after 1400 BC…” (112). This is the standard line among scholars to this day. The chapter ends with an account of Blegen’s discovery (at Pylos in April 1939) of a cache of some 600 Linear B tablets. These, with the earlier finds by Evans at Knossos, made up the critical mass of data needed for eventual decipherment (discussed in Chapter 8).

Chapter 7, “The Swastika and the Butterfly” (117-144), begins with a description of Schliemann’s garish neoclassical house in Athens (the present-day Numismatic Museum of Athens), dubbed grandiosely “The Palace of Troy.” Gere observes the ubiquity of the swastika and butterfly symbols in and around the building, both meant as allusions to items found in the excavations at Mycenae. Schliemann believed (and wrote) that the swastika was an emblem of Aryanism. The building’s decorative motifs thus evoke an era “when racial hierarchies and Aryan ideology were a respectable part of the search for a scientific account of human origins… Fantasy pagan monuments such as Priam’s palace and Agamemnon’s tomb became highly politicized projections of a post-Christian future, icons of antiquity that were made to bear all the fears and desires of modernity” (121). Gere deftly traces the permutations of those fears and desires in the minds of some major figures in the literary, intellectual, and political history of the fin de siècle and the twentieth century, from Gabriele d’Annunzio, the Cambridge Ritualists, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal through Spengler, Nazi ideologues, Hilda Doolittle, and Sigmund Freud, to George Seferis and Henry Miller.

Chapter 8, “A City without Heroes” (145-174) sounds an elegiac note. In the twenty-first century, “Schliemann has been knocked off his pedestal, Homer has disappeared from the curriculum, Agamemnon has been tried as a war criminal and Mycenae has become politically correct” (145). Gere declares that the new Museum of Mycenae (opened in 2003) is a testament to a much sounder, historically and scientifically rigorous assessment of the meaning of our literary and archaeological evidence about the age of Agamemnon. “Mycenae’s great epics and dramas have yielded to geological analysis, bioanthropological measurement and the chemistry of food residues” (147). The result has been the emergence of “a rational archaeology of ordinary daily life” (149) and the eradication of bogus romantic and racist visions of an age of heroes. Gere rehearses the prominent place of the new Linear B evidence together with findings from the systematic excavations of the “Tomb of Clytemnestra” and Grave Circle B at Mycenae in this transformation of perspective and gives due notice to Emily Vermeule’s masterpiece of consolidation, Greece in the Bronze Age (Cambridge, Mass. 1964).

Even within the post-war era of studiously objective archaeological interpretation, however, the influence of political fashion is perceptible. Gere suggests that Greek archaeologists imparted a subtle post-colonial flavor to their Museum of Mycenae: “the projected image of the Mycenaeans as ‘creating a nation’ may partly express their patriotic pride at a site whose interpretation was dominated for so long by foreigners” (147). And, too, in the early 1990s, scholars began to reconsider the post-World War II de-emphasis of military matters in Bronze Age archaeology, “as though a post-Cold War rise in temperature engendered a more welcoming climate for the study of prehistorical warfare” (170).

Gere concludes by asking “can we finally acknowledge the battle-scarred heroes of Mycenae without recruiting them to fight?” (174). This delightful book goes far to answer that question in the affirmative by combining a crisp, yet nuanced portrayal of the “tomb of Agamemnon” and associated artifacts with an absorbing history of their reception through the ages.

The book closes with two bonuses: a coda for tourists, “Making a Visit?” (175-186), and helpful directions to “Further Reading” (187-194).3


1. See esp. David A. Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit (New York: St. Martin’s, 1995).

2. E.g., “Schliemann on Schliemann: A Study in the Use of Sources,” GRBS 13 (1972) 335-53.

3. To which add, under Chapter 5, Martin Bernal, Black Athena, vol. 1 (New Brunswick, NJ 1987).