Cyclopean Walls: Display and Defense

Mon May 11 01:19:43 2009
In later years, when Mycenaean practices were long forgotten, they would look on the large walls and wonder who built them and why. They were described by Pausanias as “Cyclopean,” suggesting that they were built by giant cyclops as no human would ever need such a massive fortress.

“There still remain, however, parts of the Mycenae city wall, including the gate upon which stand lions. These, too, are said to be the work of the Cyclopes, who made for Proetus the wall at Tiryns.” (Pausanias, 2.16.5)

“Going on from here and turning to the right, you come to the ruins of Tiryns. … The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together.” (Pausanias, 2.25.8)

Pausanias tells us that the Cyclops has built all the walls of the fortification at Tiryns and Mycenae, but only a fraction of this construction is today regarded as “Cyclopean.”  Today we use the term “Cyclopean” in a more narrow sense. It is applied to wall made of rough fitting, unworked limestone boulders with smaller bits of limestone used to fill the gaps. Sometimes the exterior face might be smoothed or dressed but the boulders themselves are not dressed to better fit together.

I would suggest two reasons for the massive palace fortifications: defense and display. As all the economic and military materials were concentrated in one place it was essential to defend that place in a very formidable way. The other reason for its massive size would be as a sign or signal of great wealth and power. The Egyptians built even more monumental architecture that had absolutely no military value, but it did demonstrate the wealth and power of the pharaoh.

I think the reason why this would puzzle later Greeks is that their wealth and power were more distributed. Their wealth was not (usually) concentrated and centralized but diffused over a landscape of many individual wealthy households. The purpose of the citizen hoplite was not to defend the central agora, which had little intrinsic value, but the entire polis. It might be advantageous to fortify key positions, but massive building on the scale of the Mycenaeans would be fairly useless and extravagant for a Greek polis.

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~ by severalfourmany on May 11, 2009.

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