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"The Mycenaens in History",
A review by Carroll Quigley in Xxxxxxx, xxxx 1966,
of a book.
The Mycenaens in History
by Alan E. Samuel. Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs. N.J., 1966.


"The Mycenaens in History"


Alan E. Samuel.
The Mycenaeans in History,
Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs. N.J., 1966. 158 pp., indexed. $4.95 ($2.95 paper).

   This volume is about the same length and seems to be aimed at the same readers as some of the New Yorker magazine's long reports on scholarly issues (such as Edmund Wilson On the Dead Sea scrolls). The audience for such a work seems to be the curious layman who has heard echoes of Linear B and possibly of the controversy over Leonard R. Palmer's challenge to Sir Arthur Evans' archaeological methods.

   In the present volume the complexities and controversy, second only to the Dead Sea scrolls, are ignored. Samuel makes little effort to explain what all the fuss is about, but, instead, tries to write a history of the Mycenaeans using only the local archaeological evidence. He tells us that he is a historian, not an archaeologist, and that he is writing a historical account, an intention clearly indicated in his title. But what he has produced is rather a tenuous account of our knowledge of the archaeology of Greece in the Mycenaean period. Archaeological evidence does not speak for itself; it is simply one of several kinds of evidence from which historians try to infer what happened. Samuel seems quite unaware of this truism. He ignores all other kinds of evidence and ignores all evidence, including archaeological, from all other areas. When he makes inferences from the archaeological evidence, he seems unaware that he is making inferences or the bases (often non-archaeological) on which they rest and seems to believe that the archaeological evidence provides its own interpretation. This is most clear in what he mistakenly calls "Early Greek Religion" (Chapter 5; see especially the methological comment on p. 87). In many places where he does not explicitly draw the inferences himself, he implies interpretations which are mistaken.

   The chief of these incorrect inferences is that the Mycenaean achievement was a consequence of their own inventiveness and initiative and that they were leaders and innovators in all kinds of activities in which they were nothing of the kind. This he implies, or occasionally states, and he can make this persuasive to innocent laymen simply because he withholds the evidence of the cultural context in which the Mycenaeans were living in the late Bronze Age. He has almost nothing to say about the Levant, Egypt, the Hittites, Troy, or even Minoan Crete. Naturally, if these are ignored the Mycenaeans can be made to appear as people who came down into the Balkans about 2000 B.C. and became high cultural achievers, from their own efforts, by 1300. In fact, the name "Mycenaeans" is applied to the Greek-speaking intruders only in the period after they were thoroughly "Cretanized."

   Historically the Aegean area was one of the meeting grounds of at least three distinct cultural currents in the Bronze Age: the Asianic Anatolian cultures who provided the basic cultural foundation; the West Asian urban civilized contribution which came largely through Semite intermediaries; and the Indo-European contribution. The Minoan culture was an unique combination, largely self-created, of the first two. The Mycenaean culture was a combination of all three, with much of the first two coming through Minoan intermediaries. Samuel ignores all of this, and I have a feeling that he is not fully aware of it. Cyrus Gordon has shown that the whole eastern Mediterranean in the middle Bronze Age was a cultural continuum in which West Semite influences were very significant. It is not necessary to go all the way with Gordon or to accept his theory that the language behind Linear A is a West Semite language, but the Semite element in Aegean history, both in the Mycenaean and the Classical period, is major and undeniable. It appears most strikingly in weights, measures, seafaring, and commercial activities, and only less prominently in religion. The Mycenaean palace nexus and the accounting system which made Linear B necessary are clearly Mesopotamian, including the rationing system based on sixty. All this is ignored by Samuel. He calls the Treasury of Atreus "a perfect dome" and a 'masterpiece of precision" (p. 52), when it, like all tholos tombs, is not a true dome at all, but a very precarious corbel construction (which is why most of them collapsed). He implies that the tholos tomb and related stone work was of Mycenaean origin, when it is clearly a local version of a wide-spread and much older megalithic technique (the tholos tomb was present in southeast Spain almost a thousand years earlier). Samuel speaks of the Mycenaeans opening "Greek trade . . . far to the west" and of the Minoans bringing "the Aegean world into contact with older and more powerful civilizations of the East" (pp. 42-43), when the Aegean and Crete, like Cyprus and Malta, were way stations for cultural and commercial contact between the Levant and Spain going back to the first half of the third millennium B.C.

   Mycenaen food and female dress were largely Minoan, not Indo-European. Mycenaean religion was West Asian in its major elements, the chief deity being the Great Mother Goddess, while the chief male god was her consort. Poseidon, who was an Eastern fertility deity, a Balkan Tammuz. None of this appears in Samuel's book, and is excluded by his historical methodology; it can be inferred, or even recognized, only on the basis of non-archaeological evidence and evidence from areas outside of Greece itself. Only on the basis of such evidence, including linguistic, place-names, evidence from earlier and later (including Classical) sources and evidence from non-Balkan areas is it possible to establish the context of the Mycenaean accultural achievement. And only within such a total context is it possible to establish Mycenaean history from Mycenaean evidence (in which the archaeological evidence is only one part). Without such an effort, any book on the subject will be as mistaken as this one.

   Samuel supplies an excellent brief bibliography and singles out for special praise, Vermeule's Greece in the Bronze Age, but I find little evidence in this present volume that books such as Palmer's Mycenaeans and Minoans, Denys Page's History and the Homeric Iliad, Gurney on the Hittites and Hutchinson on Crete, or even Vermeule, have been read and digested. No works on the Semites are listed at all, and Gordon's theories are ignored completely. The result is a volume which is misleading both in the picture it offers and in its failure to warn the lay reader that all pictures of the Mycenaeans are, at the present time, more controversial and more puzzling than they have ever been.

Professor of History
Georgetown University
Washington, D. C.



Scans of original review

1  2  3



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