The Fabulous World of Agamemnon

The splendor of Mycenae is embodied in the beaten gold burial masks excavated by Schliemann, who did not hesitate to attribute one of them to Agamemnon. As these masks predate (the legendary) Agamemnon by some 400 years, modern science asks a fundamental question: Did the Greek warrior ever even live at Mycenae? © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports; Photo by S. Mavrommatis.

Through June 2, 2019
Badisches Landesmuseum
Karlsruhe, Germany

Ancient Greece is rightfully considered the cradle of Western civilization. To the ancient Greeks we trace the origins of Western philosophy, literature, and public institutions—and, of course, democracy. The earliest advanced culture to emerge on European soil was the Mycenaean, named after the palace city of Mycenae in the northeastern Peloponnese.

Treasures of the Mycenaeans are currently on display in Karlsruhe (in southwest Germany), in an exhibition titled Mycenae—the Fabulous World of Agamemnon (“Mykene—Die sagenhafte Welt des Agamemnon,” in German). With more than 400 objects on loan from Greece, this unparalleled exhibit showcases the whole Mycenaean civilization, which flourished in the Peloponnese and Central Greece in the Late Bronze Age (1600–1200 B.C.E.).

But there’s a twist, hinted at in the title. The Mycenaean king Agamemnon, who is portrayed in Homer’s epic poem Iliad as the leader of the Greek army bound for Troy to recapture Helen, may have never existed. The exhibit unpeels two layers of legends pertaining to Mycenae and Agamemnon, starting with Homer’s narrative of the Trojan War that famously features the legendary heroes from mainland Greece. A staple theme in Classical literature, the Trojan War subsequently informed much of the archaeological work of Heinrich Schliemann, who started excavating Mycenae in 1874. Having previously (and erroneously) identified Homer’s Troy in his excavations at Hissarlik, Schliemann was quick to see in the magnificent discoveries at Mycenae the home of the mighty Greek warrior Agamemnon.

We now know that the gold treasures from the shaft graves at Mycenae date from the late 16th century B.C.E. (i.e., 400 years prior to the Trojan War) and that Homeric poems cannot be taken at face value. But that is only one slice of ancient history that the Karlsruhe grand exhibit explores. Showcasing the finest examples of the Mycenaean culture, the show offers a profound overview of the entire Mycenaean civilization, including its ties with Minoan Crete and other contemporary cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean. A spectacular presentation of an early European civilization, it is a tribute to the “golden Mycenae” of Homer, after all.

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