Chapter 2 A Thousand Black Ships: Maritime Trade, Diplomatic Relations, and the Rise of Mycenae

In: Empires of the Sea
Open Access

In this chapter I discuss the role of the sea, and maritime trade in particular, in the rise of the city of Mycenae and the formation of what could be called a Mycenaean ‘Great Kingdom’ in the late 17th to 14th century bc. By focusing on Mycenaean activity in three ‘maritime worlds’ (one within the Aegean world itself, namely the Saronic Gulf – a so-called small world-, and two within the wider eastern Mediterranean, namely the eastern trade routes to Hittite Anatolia, and the route south to Egypt), I will argue that it was Mycenae’s ability to dominate the small world of the Saronic Gulf that enabled it to extend its territorial claims beyond the Argolid, which in turn led to a Mycenaean presence in Anatolia and the formation of what one could call a Mycenaean Great Kingdom.

Before I start with a discussion of what may have happened in the 16th to 14th century Saronic Gulf, it is appropriate to briefly flag a point of terminology. In spite of this volume’s title, I am reluctant to apply the term ‘Empire’ to any stage of Mycenaean history. In my view, ‘Empire’ suggests a fairly strong and wide-spread level of control from the centre (usually the King and his court) over outlying regions within ‘the realm’, through such things as regular (widespread) taxation, levies, and legislation. I doubt whether such a thing existed in any of the states of the ancient Near East, with the possible exception of New Kingdom Egypt (although even there, royal control of regions beyond the Nile valley was limited), and I see no arguments for such an imperial imprint in the Mycenaean world. Rather, I prefer to view the Mycenaean world as a typical Late Bronze Age ‘Great Kingdom’, where a given King ruled his own core Kingdom, whilst exercising varying, and usually limited, levels of control over neighbouring Kingdoms.1 Typically in such Great Kingdoms, indigenous royal houses of subjugated/vassal states remained in power, and were only obliged to send regular ‘tribute’ and support their overlord in battle. In my view, the King of Mycenae must have been a ‘Great King’ by 1400 bc at the latest, controlling his core kingdom in the Argolid and Korinthia from his palace at Mycenae, whilst leaving the day-to-day administration in his provinces to vassal rulers at such places as Pylos (in Messenia), or Miletus (on the Anatolian west-coast).

A Small Saronic World

Having clarified this aspect of political structure in the Mycenaean world (I realise my view on this is far from generally-accepted, although a growing group of scholars now see a far greater political cohesion between the Mycenaean palaces than hitherto has been the case), I will now discuss some of the mechanisms that may have been behind the remarkable rise of Mycenae in the late 17th to 15th century bc. In keeping with this volume’s central theme, I will focus on the role of maritime activity: in this case on the gradual expansion of Mycenaean control over the Saronic Gulf. By the end of the 17th century bc, the rise of Mycenae as Greece’s most important palatial centre was by no means a ‘given’. Whilst that centre may have already been the dominant citadel in the Argolid (I do not know of anything comparable to the wealth of Grave Circle A in the region, although other centres such as Argos and probably Tiryns were clearly also of importance during the 16th century bc), there were other centres around the Saronic Gulf that were probably of comparable importance.2

During the Middle Bronze Age, one centre in particular stood out and can reasonably be described as the most important centre in the Aegean outside Crete: Kolonna on Aegina, a wealthy and sizable settlement which, through the 17th and early 16th century bc, had become the major trading centre in the Saronic Gulf. Aeginitan pottery from this period is found virtually everywhere around the Saronic Gulf, but especially in the Korinthia and Attica. The so-called Aegina Treasure, a collection of especially high-quality jewellery found during clandestine digging on Aegina, testify to the wealth that was acquired, and the myriad of styles and provenances of the jewellery attest to Aegina’s far-flung trading contacts with predominately Crete, but also to the Levant, during the 17th century.3

Whilst typically ‘Greek’ produce such as olives, olive oil and wine no doubt were important commodities that were traded within the Aeginite network, the silver trade may have brought Aegina its greatest wealth. There are numerous indications (and I will come back to this later) that the silver deposits in the Laurion were already exploited during the Late Middle Bronze Age, and probably already before that period.4 The centre that probably dominated the silver mines at that, and later, time was Thorikos, which was graced with a veritable tholos tomb in the 16th century bc. Thorikos was by no means the only important centre in southern Attika, and other sites, such as Kiapha Thiti (which controlled the northern access route to the Laurion), must also have been the centres of local chiefdoms.5 It is likely that, because of its strategic position in the Saronic Gulf, Kolonna on Aegina was able to control the all-important sea routes from Attika to Minoan Crete, and that its control over the silver trade with Crete and beyond fuelled its rise as the preeminent site in the MH iii ‘Greek’ world. Kolonna on Aegina, however, was not the only centre that seems to have benefitted from this silver trade.

Some 40 silver objects were recovered from the Shaft Graves at Mycenae; an enormous amount, especially when compared to the virtual absence of silver at Mycenae or any other Aegean site in the later Bronze Age times. Until very recently, it was thought that most of the silver from the Shaft Graves originated from the Laurion.6 New research by Stos-Gale suggests that the majority of the silver from those graves came from the Carpathians.7 Silver from the Carpathians may have come to southern Greece along with gold and perhaps other goods, but the trade routes are difficult to reconstruct.8 Nevertheless, whilst the recent study suggests most of the Shaft Grave silver originated from the Carpathians, it also suggests that at least six objects from the Shaft graves are made of Laurion silver.9

One wonders how this silver reached late 17th-early 16th century bc Mycenae: silver from the Laurion region may have been brought overland, past the isthmus to Mycenae, or – more likely – by ship across the Saronic Gulf. It seems unlikely that Mycenae already exercised some sort of control over the Laurion as early as Late Helladic i (the era of the Shaft Graves), and it seems equally implausible to attribute the wealth in the Shaft Graves exclusively to successful raids. Instead, it can be argued that these objects arrived at Mycenae in the context of gift exchange amongst early Late Helladic chiefs and trade,10 and thus is likely to have arrived at Mycenae via (rather than despite) the Aeginite trading network. The unparalleled quantity of silver in the Shaft Graves must signify an important increase in the prestige and wealth of the lords of the hitherto fairly inconspicuous centre of Mycenae. It remains unclear what triggered this sudden surge in wealth and prestige, but one explanation may be found across the Mediterranean, in Egypt.

From the Aegean to the Nile

In an important, but largely overlooked 1987 article, Joseph Maran argued that there are strong indications that the et-Tôd Treasure, named after the Middle Egyptian site of et-Tôd, is the product of Mycenaean workshops.11 The treasure includes one gold and a staggering 153 silver cups, as well as a number of (mostly lapis lazuli) seals, 10 gold ingots, 20 silver chains (which are believed to be a type of ingot) and 13 silver, oval bar-shaped ingots. Hitherto dated to the Egyptian 12th dynasty (thus excluding any possible link with the Mycenaean world), Maran argued that the style of the metalwork indicates that the objects from et-Tôd belong in fact to the (early) Shaft Grave era, i.e. the final stages of the Middle Helladic period (the 17th century bc). I should add a disclaimer here, for Maran’s suggestions have not found wide-spread acceptance. One major problem in identifying metalwork as ‘Mycenaean’, especially for such an early stage of Mycenaean civilization, is our very limited understanding of metalwork traditions in Middle Bronze Age and Mycenaean Greece and neighbouring areas (including the Cyclades and Anatolia).12 Nonetheless, at least for some of the material from et-Tôd, most notably the kantharoi, there are good Mycenaean parallels, suggesting that the connections between the early Mycenaean Greek mainland and Egypt may have already been much stronger than has hitherto been thought.13 This, in turn, may explain the amount of gold, which presumably was imported mostly, though not exclusively, from Egypt, that has been recovered from the Shaft Graves.14 Moreover, if Maran is right, it may also signal cracks in Aeginitan control over the trade routes south, and may explain why Mycenae seems to have enjoyed a special relation with Egypt in later (15th to 13th) centuries.15

Regardless of these details, it is clear these early contacts between Mycenae and Egypt, if they indeed existed, did not dramatically challenge Aeginetan dominance in the region. Indeed, during the 16th and early 15th century bc, Kolonna remained the dominant trading centre in the Saronic, and Aeginitan pottery remains the dominant ‘import’ of many coastal (and some inland) communities on or near the shores of the Saronic Gulf. It seems that Aeginitan pre-eminence in this trading network never materialised into something more tangible; there are no indications for Aeginite colonization in Korinthia or Attika, nor are there any significant breaks in local developments in terms of material culture in those areas. In fact, it has been stated that, in contrast to the Argolid, the material culture of especially southern Attika – the Laurion – remains distinctly Middle Helladic in character until well in the 15th century bc. In short, the 16th and early 15th century bc ‘small maritime world’ of the Saronic Gulf can broadly be described in terms of parity, with several significant centres participating on a more or less equal footing in a network of trade and exchange. Kolonna does appear to have been somewhat more significant that the others, but only ever so slightly, and then only because of its strategic position in the centre of this network.

This situation, however, did not last. Towards the end of the 15th century, archaeology shows a momentous shift in the distribution of pottery around the Saronic Gulf, and the destruction of what was probably the residence of the ruler of Kolonna. Whilst Kolonna was not abandoned, its administrative centre was not rebuilt after the destruction in LH IIB, and in LH IIIA1 and a pottery kiln was built in the building’s remains. At the same time, the number of sites around the Saronic Gulf almost doubles, and at a number of sites, there are clear indications of Argive/Mycenaean influence on the material culture.16 Megali Magoula, a site on the southeastern coast of Troezenia, which had already been of importance during the late Middle Bronze Age and hitherto seemed to have particularly strong cultural ties to Aegina, seems to have become ‘Mycenaeanized’ during LH IIB. The most vivid testimony to this is the erection of two tholos tombs of clear Mycenaean design (as opposed to an earlier LH i tomb, which may or may not recall Cretan tholos tombs).17 On the opposite shore of the Saronic Gulf, notable changes in the material culture of the hitherto prosperous settlement of Thorikos suggest this site, too, was drawn into the Mycenaean orbit. Indeed, it has been suggested that the sudden arrival of Argive pottery and, more importantly, the construction of a Mycenaean style tholos, may signify the establishment of a new dynasty at Thorikos.18 In a recent and important monograph, Thomas Tartaron has argued that the late 15th and early 14th century bc (LH IIB and LH IIIA1) saw the development of Mycenaean hegemony over what had hitherto been a predominantly Aeginite trading network in the Saronic Gulf.19 Basing his argument especially on the chronological and spatial distribution of pottery, but also on the construction of typically Argive monuments such as the tholoi at Megali Magoula, he suggests that the decline of Kolonna in the late 15th century bc and the apparent rise of regions close to Mycenae, especially Troezenia, at the same time, were somehow related. Tartaron also argued that political structures and trade patterns within the ‘small world’ of the Saronic Gulf, towards the end of the 15th century bc, were reconfigured when the Saronic trade network became part of the larger ‘world system’ of Late Bronze Age international trade, and although he did not specify the exact causes that caused this gradual change of a small maritime world into a large maritime world, it may well be that the tightening of bonds between Mycenae and Egypt triggered this transformation. I argue that the need to secure access to the silver deposits in the Laurion may have forced the rulers of early Mycenae to gradually expand their territorial control towards southern Attika, whilst the overseas silver trade with Egypt generated the wealth and prestige that was required for this eastwards expansion.

The evidence for such a scenario does not exclusively come from archaeological data from the Greek world, but also from Egypt. Precisely at the time when Aeginite influence over the Saronic seems to have been waning, Mycenae is reported to engage in diplomatic gift exchange with the King of Egypt. The relevant text is a passage from the Annals of Thutmoses iii, arguably the greatest warrior King Egypt ever knew. According to the Annals, in ca. 1437 bc, whilst on campaign in northern Syria, Thutmoses iii received an envoy from the ‘Prince of Tanaju’, bringing him ‘a silver shawabti-vessel in Keftiuan workmanship together with four bowls of copper with handles of silver. Total 56 deben 4 kite’.20 Keftiu has long been recognized as the Egyptian designation for Crete, whereas Tanaju is now understood as the Egyptian term for mainland Greece, with Mycenae as its principal centre.21 Thutmoses’ annals thus seem to indicate that, already in the (advanced) 15th century bc, Mycenae was already involved in international gift exchange. The prominence of silver vessels in the gift for Thutmoses iii is, in my opinion, significant and further suggests an interest in, and by this time probably control over, the Laurion mines.

Pharaonic Regalia and the Rise of Mycenae

The importance of this cannot be overstated, and the impact that these contacts with the land of the Pharaohs must have made back home in the Mycenaean world, must have been tremendous. The aforementioned Kom el Hetan text indicates these contacts persisted into the reign of Amenhotep iii. This Pharaoh, in particular, seems to have had close relations with the Mycenaean world: scarabs and other objects – such as a famous blue faience monkey – bearing the King’s royal cartouche have been found at various centres in the Aegean that were listed in the Kom el Hetan text.22 Mycenae, however, seems to have been the focus of the Pharaoh’s attention, and several objects from his reign have been recovered at that site. Most importantly, this included a number – the current count suggests 11- of unique faience plaques, all bearing the royal cognomen of both sides.23

These plaques have been the object of much study, and whilst it remains unclear how they were used in their Mycenaean setting, it does seem likely that the Mycenaeans were aware of the original symbolic and ritual importance such objects had in Egypt. One fragment of a plaque was found in a tin vessel in the Cult Centre, in a late 13th century bc context – suggesting that even towards the end of the Mycenaean era, these objects were held in particular esteem.24 There are various indications that contacts between Mycenae and Egypt endured until the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces, and I have argued elsewhere that these contacts, at least in part conducted in the context of royal gift exchange, involved the trade in olives and olive oil, as well as the possible stationing of Mycenaean warriors in Pharaoh’s army (as is suggested by a unique papyrus from El Amarna).25

The picture that thus arises is one of disintegration on the one hand, and expansion on the other. The disintegration of Aegina as a major player in maritime trade in the Small World of the Saronic in the period 1450–1350 bc, as evidenced by first the decline of Aeginite exports to regions surrounding the Saronic and then, at some point in LH IIB, the actual destruction of the main administrative building at Kolonna, coincides with an increase of Mycenaean cultural traits in various regions around the Saronic, and the development of trade relations between Mycenae and Egypt. Whilst this cannot be conclusively proven, I think it is realistic to assume that these developments were related, and that the intensification of Mycenae’s connections with Egypt resulted in greater wealth and prestige for its rulers, which in turn fuelled territorial ambitions – in all likelihood focused primarily on consolidating access to the silver mines of the Laurion.

Coming towards the end of this paper, it may be appropriate to briefly illustrate the effects of Mycenaean expansion during LH IIB and LH IIIA in another arena; this time in the eastern Aegean. I have argued that at some point during the period 1450–1350 bc – roughly speaking the time of Thutmoses iii to Amenhotep iii- Mycenae’s need for silver to fuel its profitable connections with Egypt resulted in the Mycenaean annexation of Attika and the Laurion mines. The erection of Mycenaean-style tholos tombs at Thorikos in Attika and, in Troezenia, Megali Magoula, may reflect the installation of local vassals, whose rule was given added lustre with Argive royal iconography. The annexation of Attika, however, was not the end-station of Mycenaean expansion. Quite the contrary, in fact, for it opened up the sea-routes via the Cyclades towards western Anatolia.

Hittite sources suggest that, again around 1400 bc, Mycenaeans – in Hittite texts referred to as people from Ahhiyawa – for the first time set foot on the Anatolian west-coast. Both the texts and archaeology indicate that at some point soon thereafter the settlement of Millawanda (Miletus) became the major Mycenaean foothold in Anatolia. It remains fiercely debated whether Ahhiyawa was a Hittite designation for a specific Mycenaean kingdom or whether it was a more generic term, designating the Mycenaean region in general, without any political connotation. I have argued elsewhere that it is plausible to consider Ahhiyawa as the Hittite designation for the Kingdom of Mycenae, and thus that Tanaju and Ahhiyawa were one and the same.26 If Ahhiyawa is indeed the same as Tanaju, and if these two toponyms do indeed refer to the Kingdom of Mycenae, the impression gained from the texts, and if the spread of the Mycenaean cultural koine is anything to go by, the general trend is one of accelerated territorial expansion following the annexation of the regions surrounding the Saronic Gulf, via the islands in the Aegean towards the Anatolian west coast. It may be more than coincidence that the first archaeological evidence for truly monumental palaces at the sites of Mycenae and Tiryns – although there certainly were earlier ‘palatial’ centres at those sites – date to precisely this period; LH IIIA, the first half of the 14th century bc and that various similarities have been observed between Anatolian (Hittite) and Mycenaean palaces.27

Epilogue: Maritime Developments and the Collapse of Long-Distance Overseas Trade

I hope to have demonstrated that Mycenae’s ability to gain effective control over maritime trade routes, both in the small world of the Saronic Gulf and in the big world of the eastern Mediterranean, allowed its elite to achieve a preeminent status amongst and, eventually, power over, their competitors elsewhere in the Aegean. I also hope to have shown that the quest for metals, first and foremost, are likely to have guided Mycenae’s territorial expansion: eastwards (to the Laurion and ultimately Anatolia), to the north (towards the metal sources of Chalkidiki and the routes to the ore-rich Carpathians), and to the south, via Crete, to Egypt (and Cyprus). Whilst much of what I have argued must remain conjecture, new finds and new interpretations of old material increasingly seems to support the notion that the Mycenaean world was not only far more politically coherent, but also far more closely involved in international trade and diplomacy than hitherto thought. To illustrate this last point, I will end with this picture of a ship-cart, which was found in a tomb dated to ca. 1200 bc in Egyptian Gurob (Figure. 2.1). In a recent study, Shelly Wachsmann has identified this as an accurate representation of a Late Helladic penteconter, which may have been used during religious ceremonies by groups of foreigners (originally perhaps mercenary troops) stationed at Gurob.28 Whilst Wachsmann plausibly suggested that the owner of this ship-cart – probably one of the ‘Sherden’, a group of Sea Peoples who are known to have been settled at Gurob in the Rammesside era – may have had Urnfield roots, the ships paint is remarkably consistent with Homer’s description of the Achaean ships headed for Troy: the Achaeans’ Black Ships, and, in the case of Odysseus’ flotilla, the red-cheeked (μιλτοπάρῃος) ships.29 In view of the, by that time ancient, links between Egypt and the Mycenaean world, I find it quite conceivable that, amongst these mercenaries, there was a contingent of Mycenaean Greeks.

Figure 2.1
Figure 2.1

The Gurob ship-cart model

photo j. kelder


Wolfson College/Oriental Institute, University of Oxford: I thank the organizers of and the speakers at the conference ‘Maritime Empires’ for the stimulating discussions and fascinating presentations. This paper has benefitted from discussions with various colleagues. In particular, I should like to thank Oliver Dickinson, Sarah Morris, and John Papadopoulos for their feedback on some of the ideas presented here. I remain, of course, the only person responsible for the ideas presented here, and for any mistake this paper may contain.


Cf. Kelder 2010a; 2013.


See for a survey of other important sites Kelder 2005, and esp. Kelder 2008, 69; followed (albeit without references) by Crouwel 2009.


Cf. the various contributions in Fitton 2009.


E.g. Stos-Gale and Gale 1982; Spitaels 1984; Mountjoy 1995.


Cf. Hagel and Lauter 1987; Tartaron 2013.


Kelder 2016, basing himself on Stos-Gale and Gale 1982, 476.


Stos-Gale 2014.


Davis 1977 first suggested gold and silver from the Carpathians may have come to southern Greece.There is a growing understanding that relations between the Mycenaean world and the Carpathians were far more intensive than was previously thought. Drews 2017 highlights especially the relations in metalworking traditions between these two worlds, suggesting a common origin (in the region north and to the east of the Black Sea) for both. In a recent paper held at the Getty Museum in L.A. (Kelder, forthcoming), I have tried to further highlight some aspects of Balkan – Aegean interaction, including the exchange of mercenaries.


Stos-Gale 2014, 196–198.


E.g Burns 2010, 78 ff.


Maran 1987.


Oliver Dickinson, pers. comm. (10 April 2015).


Other objects from the material from et-Tôd, such as the cups, cannot easily be linked to any known metalworking tradition.


Maran cautions that the silver from et-Tôd may have reached Egypt via middlemen on Cyprus or in the Levant. Whilst this possibility cannot be excluded, the impression of uniformity –the 153 silver cups to my (untrained) eye seemed to be the work of a single workshop- seems to argue for a single (direct) shipment.


Cf. Cline 1998; Kelder 2009 with references.


Siennicka 2002, 184–187.


Konsolaki-Yannopoulou 2010, 72–73.


Servais 1969, 68; Gasche and Servais 1971, 21 ff.


Tartaron 2013.


Annals of Thutmoses iii; cf. Strange 1980, 50–51; Haider 1988, 10, reads ‘iron cups’ with handles of silver.


That Tanaju was indeed situated in the Aegean is confirmed in a later text, dating to the reign of Amenhotep iii (ca. 1390–1353 bc). This text, a long list of states describing the world then known to the Egyptians, is incised on the bases of colossal statues of Amenhotep iii in his mortuary temple at present-day Kom el Hetan. On one of these bases, Tanaju is listed immediately following Keftiu, which, considering the grouping of other (known) states in the list, suggests that Tanaju lay in roughly the same direction as Keftiu, although further. Whilst its grouping with Keftiu already indicates that Tanaju must be situated in the Aegean, evidence for its exact position is provided in a second column, listing the cities and principal regions of Keftiu and Tanaju. Although a number of these have not been conclusively identified, the identifications of Mycenae and Nauplion, as well as Kythera, Messenia and the Thebaid (notably the region around Thebes, but not Thebes itself) are now widely accepted. Cf. Kelder 2010b; Cline and Stannish 2011 and references therein.


Cf. Cline 1998, with references therein.


Philips and Cline 2005, 327; Kelder 2010a, 68.


Kelder 2010a, 68; see also Burns 2010, 20–25, with extensive discussion on the possible Mycenaean manufacture of the plaques based on chemical analysis of two fragments. Although the chemical composition of these plaques may be consistent with Mycenaean faience rather than Egyptian faience, the palaeography of the royal cognomen on the plaques strongly argues for an Egyptian origin or, possibly, an Egyptian craftsmen that was involved in the creation of these unique plaques at Mycenae.


Cf. Kelder 2009; 2010b.


Kelder 2010a.


Cf. Thaler 2007 for parallels between the Mycenaean and Hittite world in the construction and use of palatial architecture. Contacts between Mycenae and Anatolia intensified during the 13th century bc: cf. Blackwell 2014 for the use of Hittite tools and techniques in the creation and repair of the Lion gate relief at Mycenae during LH IIIB.


Wachsmann 2012.


Cf. J. Emanuel, ‘Odysseus Boat?’ Presented as part of the 2013–14 lecture series ‘Discovery of the Classical World’, hosted by the Department of the Classics at Harvard University (unpublished but available online at


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Empires of the Sea

Maritime Power Networks in World History