In Search of Agamemnon: Early Travellers to Mycenae examines Mycenae as a destination for travelers during antiquity and assembles descriptions of the site of ancient Mycenae written by Anglophone travelers who visited Greece on the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries. With this collection, the authors aim to show that Mycenae was considered a ‘grand’ destination before Heinrich Schliemann brought archaeological notoriety to the site. This book is, so far as I know, the only monograph to focus on travelers’ accounts to Mycenae. It expands on an introductory chapter of the Archaeological Atlas of Mycenae, written by John Lavery and Elizabeth French, which focused on early travelers to the site but discussed their observations from an archaeological perspective rather than the traveler’s perspective presented here. 1
The book begins with a short preface and an introduction. The introduction describes the state of travel to Mycenae from the time of Pausanias to the late 18th and early 19th centuries when British travelers began to take interest in it. When Mycenae did reappear on travelers’ itineraries, the authors wonder whether it was because of the Homeric legends or because of curiosity. The observations of the travelers in the later chapters suggest it was a bit of both.
Chapter One is called “Ancient Greek and Roman Travellers to Mycenae.” The authors begin by revisiting Homeric and Classical references to the site that Lavery and French call “largely irrelevant.” While these references may not be particularly useful archaeologically, the authors do show that they can be useful for understanding ancient perceptions of Mycenae and the myths that surrounded it. They begin by exploring the formation of the mythical reputation of the site during the period prior to its destruction by Argos and how the destruction may have affected this reputation. Source material analyzed includes Homer’s descriptions and two sources mentioned by Pausanias, Akesilaos and Hellanicus. Discussion of whether Grave Circle A was visible in antiquity is followed by a short excursus on evidence for hero worship at Mycenae, particularly that of Perseus, whom the authors suggest would have been worshipped at Grave Circle A if it was visible. Grave Circle A might thus have been a place of pilgrimage for ancient travelers. The authors do not mention the Doric temple on the acropolis as a possible destination for ancient visitors but this may be due to the focus on mythological attractions at the site rather than religious ones. The authors go on to discuss the references in Strabo and Diodorus Siculus to the sack of Mycenae by Argos in 468 BC. They observe that this event seemed to relegate Mycenae to the status of a mere settlement as opposed to a Homeric destination. This is a logical conclusion since even Alexander the Great and Roman emperors Nero and Hadrian failed to visit Mycenae. Only Pausanias’ description remains as a clue to understanding what ancient visitors might have seen. In this chapter’s section on Pausanias, the authors dig into his description of Mycenae in order to establish what they believe he actually saw on the site as opposed to what he learned of the site from local legends and his source material. They conclude that Pausanias did not see the Treasury of Atreus, Grave Circle A, or the tholos tombs described as the tombs of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, but they assert that Pausanias likely set eyes on the Perseia fountain house and the Lion Gate, which seems like a fairly safe assessment. The final section of this chapter addresses myths recounted in the poetry of Simonides, Stesichorus, and Pindar that identify Agamemnon as Laconian in addition to literary accounts of his worship at Sparta as Zeus-Agamemnon. The authors conclude that these competing claims to Agamemnon’s mythology may have negatively impacted tourism at Mycenae in antiquity.
Chapter Two, “Greece and the Grand Tour,” introduces readers to the Grand Tour and explains how Greece, which was part of the Ottoman Empire until the early 1830s, became a destination for elite travelers. Greece became an appealing alternative to France and Italy during periods of unrest beginning with the French Revolution. although some visitors ventured into the Ottoman Empire prior to this time. Mycenae was sought out by those wishing to connect with “Heroic Culture,” to record ancient architecture, and to acquire artifacts for their personal collections or for donation to museums back home. The authors reiterate that these intrepid early travelers paved the way for Schliemann’s excavations. The chapter ends with a short discussion of chronology and dating terminology mentioned in the accounts, and here the authors point out that several travelers also noted the appearance of varying architectural styles in the circuit walls and placed them in a relative sequence. Overall, this chapter does a nice job of preparing the reader for the accounts that follow by introducing recognizable and notable personalities and the topics that they commonly discussed.
The next three chapters contain reports written by British and Irish Grand Tourists who visited Mycenae between 1790 and 1877; Chapter Six branches out into American visitors. Entries are organized chronologically according to the date of travel. Each traveler is given a brief introduction including biographical information — where they were educated, people they knew, whom they married—and other amusing facts, e.g., that Edward Clark spent the last year of his BA at Jesus College building a balloon. The travelers’ reflections on the site of Mycenae, the journey to the site, or questions of its mythological history are interspersed with short explanations or discussions of the passages by the authors. Chapter Three also begins with the caveat by the authors that, in order to avoid unnecessary repetition, they did not always include each traveler’s full description of Mycenae. Instead, they refer readers to an appendix with the standard description from the Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece from 1854. While this is a thoughtful touch, it might have been nice to read this description as part of one of the introductory chapters.
Even though there is inevitably some repetition in the accounts, the stories are compelling, and the excerpts chosen by the authors paint a vivid picture of travel to a site that was then remote and for the most part deserted. It was obscure enough that Richard Chandler, the subject of the first entry, missed Mycenae altogether. The entries that follow abound with notable names. For instance, Thomas Bruce, better known as the infamous Lord Elgin, visited Mycenae in 1802, when he ordered the façade of the Treasury of Atreus to be cleared and removed several sections that were later sold to the British Museum. The influential accounts of well-known travelers William Gell, Edward Dodwell, and William Martin Leake are included along with other illustrious characters, such as Lord Sligo, who traded cannons with the Veli Pasha for fragments from the façade of the Treasury of Atreus, and Richard Jebb, who claimed to have seen at the house of Stamatakes a skeleton from Grave Circle A believed to be that of Agamemnon and which the authors speculate may not have been the individual associated with the famous and controversial gold mask assigned to Agamemnon by Schliemann.
The authors successfully show that Mycenae was indeed a popular destination on the Grand Tour, and they demonstrate how our modern perceptions of the site have been shaped by these early accounts. Unfortunately, the concluding chapter is short and falls a bit flat, merely summarizing the contents of the book without adding a great deal.
The only concerns I have with this book are in Chapter One. Although the title states that ancient travelers to the site will be discussed, the authors correct themselves early on, saying that the chapter will be an “analysis of ancient textual references” (1). The correction is necessitated by the fact that the description of Pausanias is the only surviving traveler’s account of ancient Mycenae. Although the authors ask interesting questions of the surviving references, they also make some strong statements that could be tempered with a greater consideration of archaeological evidence or lack thereof. For example, while Argos did bring an end to Mycenae’s standing as an independent polis, it is important to note that Mycenae was not totally razed even though the authors use language that implies as much, e.g., “with Mycenae gone” and “the utter destruction of the site.” The variety of architectural styles visible in the standing remains of Mycenae’s circuit wall, first observed by Grand Tourists as described throughout the book, reveal that only segments of the 13th century BC wall were brought down, most likely along with key monuments within the walls, such as the temple. 2 Razed segments of the circuit wall were rebuilt with polygonal masonry when the Hellenistic kome was established. 3 Thus, the notion that Mycenae was entirely destroyed is misleading.
The authors also state with certainty that Grave Circle A was a place of veneration prior to 468 BC, despite acknowledging in a note that we cannot know whether Schliemann removed ancient architectural remains from this area of the site, which would suggest it was not a revered space. They further state that the enclosure and the graves were untouched by the Argives because the grave circle must have been a well-known place of worship throughout the region. The authors fail, however, to suggest that Grave Circle A might have survived precisely because it was obscured or because the space was not regionally venerated at the time the city was sacked, and thus it was not worth obliterating. Finally, Jonathan Hall’s 1995 article “How Argive was the Argive Heraion?,” which addresses the history of Mycenae as a polis, the Argive plain’s regional cults, and the creation of a political history of the region based on later Argive dominance, should also have been considered in this chapter. 4
The book itself is nicely produced and includes a fair amount of images that include mostly portraits of travelers, their drawings or maps of the site, and photographs of architectural fragments now in museums. Some of the photographs could be of higher quality, such as Figure 20, the photograph of a fragment from the façade of the treasury of Atreus now in the British Museum, but the drawings and other photographs are crisp and clear. A simple map of the Aegean is included, but Tiryns and Argos are slightly misplaced. A plan of Mycenae articulating the archaeological features of the site mentioned by the authors and the travelers would have been helpful to readers who might not be immediately able to envision, for instance, the location of the grave circles in relation to the extramural tholoi mentioned throughout the book. The text contains a few typos and formatting issues, and there are a few places where citations are needed. For example, the authors state that “it is Elizabeth French’s view that Aeschylus was clearly referring to Mycenae in his play Agamemnon,” (19) but no citation is included. 5
All that being said, this is a thought-provoking book and an enjoyable read. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the rediscovery of Bronze Age archaeological sites in general and of Mycenae specifically, as well as to those fascinated by the Grand Tour and the grand travelers who made the journey.
1. John Lavery and Elizabeth French, “Early Accounts of Mycenae,” in Archaeological Atlas of Mycenae, Electra Andreati and Lucy Braggiotti, eds. (Athens: The Archaeological Society at Athens, 2003), 1-3.
2. Elizabeth French. Mycenae. Agamemnon’s Capital. (Stroud, Gloucestershire; Charleston, SC: Tempus, 2002), 145.
3. Elizabeth French. Mycenae. Agamemnon’s Capital., 146-147.
4. Jonathan M. Hall, “How ‘Argive’ was the Argive Heraion: The Political and Cultic Geography of the Argive Plain, 900–400 B. C.,” American Journal of Archaeology 99 (1995): 577-613.
5. Elizabeth French. Mycenae. Agamemnon’s Capital., 18.