Homer’s hostel

Main photo: The Lion Gate; the main entrance of the Bronze Age citadel of Mycenae (© Mentor)

Eustathius of Thessalonica (c. 1115-1195) was an educated Byzantine scholar, who wrote commentaries on ancient Greek poets, theological treatises, and an account of the sack of Thessaloniki by the Romans in 1185. He was also very fond of Homer, the great epic poet of antiquity. Eustathius composed an impressive array of commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey, dealing with the mythology, history, and geography of the Homeric world. According to him, all rivers and springs flow from the ocean, and all writers “visit” Homer and draw their material from him. His “hostel” (as Eustathius called the two epic poems) has entertained all who have passed by, while all who have come across him have stopped there, enchanted by the song of his Sirens.  

Homeric Routes is an ambitious 14-day Study Abroad program aimed at bringing to life the world of Homer’s great heroes. The poet lived many centuries after the events he narrates, but his epic creations are inspired to a large extent by the real material culture and customs of the Mycenaeans. They were a warlike people, who built palaces; kept detailed records of their economy; created amazing works of art; and departed this world accompanied by rich funerary goods. The Homeric Routes will explore the Mycenaean civilization and landscape in all its glory, while participants will survey the origins of ancient Greek literature and the world of Homer, which remains very much alive in the Greek countryside.

Homer, imagined likeness, late 1st century BCE or 1st century CE (© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
A Buckingham Palace on every hill

The heroes of Homer were kings. And kings reside in palaces, it is, therefore, no coincidence that the Mycenaeans expended great effort to build impressive complexes for their royal families. The palaces are spread all over the Peloponnese but share common features. They stand on the summit of a defensible hill (acropolis) that dominates a fertile plain. The focal point is the lavishly decorated throne room with a circular hearth surrounded by four columns. Access to the throne room was through a series of courtyards that opened upon living quarters and workshops. The royal chambers were usually on the second floor.

Aerial view of the ancient citadel of Mycenae, Peloponnese (© Mentor)

Mycenae is the most famous of all these palaces. The landscape seems almost unchanged since the time of the Mycenaeans, with expansive olive groves and the steep hills behind the palace, where the sentries received the news of the fall of Troy via a string of beacons. The kings and queens were buried in grave circles or massive tholos tombs built with stones that weigh up to 120 tons. Each! It is almost impossible to explore this site without thinking of Agamemnon being murdered in the bath by his wife, in revenge for his daughter’s sacrifice before the Greeks sailed for Troy.

The Treasury of Atreus or Tomb of Agamemnon; a large “tholos” tomb at Mycenae (© Mentor)

Pylos, home to the wise king Nestor, is the best preserved Mycenaean palace. It consisted of 105 ground floor apartments (and an unknown number on the second floor) and had many amenities, including a functional sewage system. It was also a great administrative center that was destroyed by fire. The flames baked thousands of clay tablets in Linear B script and ensured their survival through the centuries. Their discovery enabled the English architect Michael Ventris to decipher them, proving that the Mycenaeans spoke Greek.     

The walls of Cyclopes

As the old proverb says “he is most free from danger, who, even when safe, is on his guard”.  The Mycenaeans were strong and powerful and rich, but they took no chances when it came to their safety. Their palaces were protected by massive fortifications. The Greeks believed that the fortifications of Mycenae were built by the Cyclopes, the primordial race of giants with a single eye.

But it is in Tiryns where one can truly appreciate the labor and size of these walls. They reached a height of ten meters and some of the stones are so big that later visitors did not believe that humans or animals could move them. King Eurystheus ruled the surrounding lands from the safety of these walls as he sent Hercules on his 12 Labours.

The walls of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Tiryns (© Mentor)

Menelaion, outside Sparta, demonstrates what could happen to these kings and queens when they died. It is a complex of hills where the classical Greeks worshiped Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his beautiful wife, Helen (the one who decided to abscond with Paris and set in motion the events that led to the Trojan War). At some later period, the people of Sparta, perhaps faced with a serious crisis, decided to worship the old king and his wife, hoping to secure the assistance of a hero who was closer to humanity than the gods.

The Acropolis of Athens is famous for the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Caryatids, and the Propylaea. And yet, once upon a time, it was also the site of the residence of the Mycenaean kings. Homer, after all, refers to this strong-built house. Alas, only a single column-base and pieces of steps survive. The massive walls that protected the Acropolis have fared much better, but almost all the evidence is out of sight, supplanted by later defensive works.    

Life and death

The majority of the population did not reside on the acropolis. Their houses and workshops were located outside the fortifications, but the site was selected with such wisdom that many of them thrived for centuries after the collapse of the palatial system. Asine, on the coast of Argolis (where Mycenae and Tiryns are), was subject to King Diomedes and is mentioned by Homer, in the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, as one of the settlements that supplied 80 ships to the expedition against Troy. On the other side of the Peloponnese is Peristeria, one of the oldest and most important Mycenaean settlements, dating to the 16th century BCE. At the center is an impressive tomb, where several people were buried over many generations. Rich offerings accompanied the dead, including gold artifacts, precious stones, weapons, and pottery. In many cases, these tombs formed a necropolis, as is the case in Dendra, near the citadel of Midea in Argolis. The archaeologists have discovered many tombs that were presumably occupied by members of the ruling class of Midea.    

Grave circle A; a 16th-century BCE royal cemetery situated to the south of the Lion Gate, Mycenae (© Mentor)
The face of Agamemnon

Besides kings and masterful architects, there were also farmers, fishermen, painters, potters, washerwomen, singers, shipwrights, scriveners, laborers, weavers, and warriors. The material remains of this society are preserved in archaeological museums in Greece, and a visit to the most important ones is essential if we want to truly understand the magnificence of the Mycenaean civilization. In the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, you come face to face with Agamemnon…or at least the gold mask attributed to him. The Archaeological Museum of Nafplion is home to the famous Dendra panoply, a complete full-body armor that once protected its owner from the neck to the knees. The Museum of Chora displays a two-handled cup like the ones specifically mentioned by Homer. There are also fragments of the wall paintings that once adorned the palace of Nestor. The Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil in Sparta highlights the culture and technology of the olive and olive oil production, inextricably linked with the Mycenaean economy and Greek culture in general.

The so-called ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ at The National Archaeological Museum of Athens (© Mentor)
The last wild place

And what about the land between the palaces and the cemeteries and the olive groves? It was so wild that lions roamed the countryside. Every mountain and river was home to a god or a nymph, while thick forests gave shelter to all who needed it. Very few such wild places remain today in the Peloponnese. The Taygetus overlooks the city of Sparta. Its name appears in the Odyssey and the Mycenaeans established settlements on its lower slopes. At a later period, the Spartans threw criminals and deformed or sick infants into the Caeadas, a chasm of Taygetos. The thickly forested slopes are very popular with hikers, while the highest peaks remain the abode of Zeus and Helios (the Sun).  

Mount Taygetus ( © Mentor)

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Homer is the legendary blind poet who wrote the two classic epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Almost nothing about his life is known with certainty.

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