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Mycenae & Epidaurus: Never Forgotten

Arnie Greenberg

Tragic myths derived from ancient Mycenae. I went there to be inspired and I was. I am moved to reread Homer's Iliad, that great tragic epic of Agamemnon and the Greek siege of Troy. I wanted to see where the great Mycenaean headquarters was on the eve of the Trojan War in 1192 BC. According to the Legend, Paris, prince of Troy, abducted Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta.

Since Agamemnon, son of Arteus, was the most powerful king in Greece, he was selected to lead the expedition against the Trojans and the city of Priam. But he paid dearly for his efforts. While he was away, his wife Clytemestra, sister of the beautiful Helen, became the lover of Agamemnon's cousin, Aegisthus.

When Troy fell, Agamemnon returned victorious to Mycenae, bringing with him his mistress Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, with whom he had two children, Orestes and Electra.

During the welcoming ceremony, Aegisthus and Clytemestra murdered Agamemnon. Aegisthus took over the rule of Mycenae but was soon murdered with Clytemestra by Agamemnon's children.

We learn more about the happenings from Aeschylus who wrote the legend in his bloody trilogy known as 'The Oresteia'.

All very interesting but not as interesting as the site of Mycenae itself. It has been dug up and sits 900 feet above sea level surrounded by olive groves in the gentle plain of Argolis just 125 km from Athens. Only treachery and intrigue could bring this bastion down. The Dorians eventually destroyed the city-states in the area but Mycenae was raised again in the 19th century. It is a historical pilgrimage. The site sits proudly in the sun, never forgotten.

Imagine my excitement as I approached the 30,000 square meter acropolis with its roughly shaped stones that legend has it were carried to their place by the mythical Cyclops. How else could they explain that these stones were moved when they are five and a half meters thick and they rose 37 feet in the air.

I felt the awesome power of this fortress city and was reminded of the brave warriors who entered the citadel through the mammoth Lion Gate on the northwestern perimeter. I followed the road leading to the gate from the modern guardroom up a rocky slope. I thought of the guards and their primitive weapons of swords, spears, slings and arrows. Weapons such as these could never take this mammoth citadel, yet Mycenae eventually fell after long sieges. Heinrich Shliemann raised much of the site again in the 19th century. It was he who uncovered the lost city of Troy.

I entered the Lion Gate that is almost as wide as it is high. I stared at the gaping threshold with its 14-foot long monolithic slab. The two lions face the visitors in the large triangular carvings above the entry. The relief carved in the slab is the oldest monumental sculpture in the western world. They date from about 1250 BC. The walls themselves were probably built in stages over time.

I stood in the inner court, which looked into the partially built acropolis with its granary, great ramp and Grave Circle. Much of it had been destroyed by fire in 1120 BC. The Grave Circle or Royal Cemetery is 28 meters in diameter and was set out by Schliemann who explored five different grave shafts. Others were discovered later. They contained skeletons from the past. Even a gold mask, thought to be the death mask of Agamemnon himself was discovered. Later that day, I purchased a replica of that golden mask. It sits proudly on my mantle. If it is indeed Agamemnon he looks down on me as I sip my wine and conjure up memories of a time before modernity. I think of the great king, Paris and Helen, Cassandra and the story of the Trojan Wars. I think of the story and how a community, high above the sea brought myths and lessons to later generations.

Just a few paces away I visited the haunting tomb of Clytemestra with its rock cut passageway measuring 37 meters long and six meters wide. Now quite plain, the façade of the entranceway was once covered with marble incrustation. This tomb, beautifully restored, is one of the most impressive monuments in the Mycenaean world and a recent example of thalos tombs in the area. Villagers building an aqueduct accidentally discovered it quite recently. The tomb of Clytemestra is the most recent thalos tomb. It may even belong to Agamemnon and his descendants.

Whoever is there, there's a feeling of going back in time when one stands in the dark inner chamber with its high ceilings. One would never know from the outside how wonderfully preserved it is inside. Whoever is buried there, may they rest in peace.

A short drive away is the ancient city of Epidaurus. Here in the sanctuary of Asclepius the god of health. What Apollo is to Delphi, Asclepius was to Epidaurus. He was the god of medicine who cured the physical ailments of man in about the 13th century BC. After his death, men worshipped him as a god of medicinal powers. If the legend is true, his descendants can be traced to Hippocrates the father of modern medicine. The serpent was the symbol of Asclepius and has become the symbol of modern medicine due to the fact that the snake sheds its skin and thus regenerates itself. So too does the sick man who is regenerated by the cures of his illness.

Here I visited the ruins of the famous sanctuary in a wonderful pine valley. They were rediscovered in the 17th century. There is also a temple with priest's dwellings, statues and roads plus an altar and gymnasium for running, jumping, javelin throwing wrestling and discus. Even then, exercise was considered important to cure. There was a hippodrome for horse races, a hotel, baths, and a library. All of this is worth a visit but for me the linchpin of the site is the mammoth theatre that is still in use today. Busloads of tourists make the evening trek from Athens to see the great Greek tragedies in a setting second to none. It was considered the most remarkable theatre of its time and still stands out with its symmetry and beauty. Designed by Polycleitus, it was begun in the 4th century BC. It is in very good condition considering the age.

There are 155 tiers divided into two zones with 34 in the lower zone. There are 12 sections and the orchestra below is a perfect circle with a diameter of over 30 meters. There is a building of over 26 meters that serves as the scene for the stage and it is amazing that even a whisper can be heard from any seat. I sat in the highest zone and looked down as a boy dropped a penny in the middle of the stage. I could here the clink of the metal on the stone as clearly as anyone in the theatre.

That night we stopped in the port city of Nauplia. It is the perfect jumping off point for Mycenae and Epidaurus. My head was filled with warriors, digs and theatres as I slept peacefully in this Greek wonderland of history.

Of course I brought much of it back in my brain but the gold mask of Agamemnon helps refresh a journey into the past, a journey I shall long remember.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

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