50km (31 miles) S of Corinth; 115km (71 miles) SW of Athens
Nearly every visitor to the Peloponnese comes to Mycenae, which can make for bumper-to-bumper tour buses on the narrow roads to the citadel and wall-to-wall tourists inside the citadel itself. Why do they all come? As the English philhellene Robert Liddell once wrote: "Mycenae is one of the most ancient and fabulous places in Europe. I think it should be visited first for the fable, next for the lovely landscape, and thirdly for the excavations." Once you're through the majestic Lion Gate, you may want to remember Liddell's remark if -- as is very likely -- you don't find it easy to imagine Mycenae when it was a bustling settlement with a richly decorated palace.
According to Greek legend and the poet Homer, King Agamemnon of Mycenae was the most powerful leader in Greece at the time of the Trojan War. It was Agamemnon, Homer says, who led the Greeks from Mycenae, which he called "rich in gold," to Troy (around 1250 B.C.). There, the Greeks fought for 10 years to reclaim fair Helen, the wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, from her seducer, the Trojan prince Paris. The Greeks won, Helen dutifully returned home to Sparta, and Agamemnon headed home to Mycenae. There, his wife, Clytemnestra, welcomed him home with a soothing hot bath, in which she stabbed him to death. Her motive? Revenge, for the death of their daughter Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon had sacrificed when he set off for Troy, to ensure that the gods provided a fair wind and safe journey. Like many Greek myths and legends, the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra makes the grisly Grimm Brothers' fairy tales (and Steven King's novels!) seem almost harmless.
The German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who found and excavated Troy, began to dig at Mycenae in 1874. Did Schliemann's excavations prove that what Homer wrote was based on an actual event -- and not myth or legend? Scholars are suspicious, although most admit that Mycenae could have been built to order from Homer's descriptions of Mycenaean palaces. Displays at the site museum help put flesh on the bones of the archaeological remains. Try to visit the museum the minute it opens; it is small, and gets horribly crowded as the day goes on. At press time, museum tickets and guidebooks were sold only at the ticket booth for the site itself.