Tiryns was occupied from the mid-sixth millennium bc. Then the sea lapped close to the rocky outcrop, which rises abruptly from the plain to a height of just under 28 m (100 ft), but the shoreline gradually receded until by the second millennium bc it was 1 km (just over half a mile) away. (It is now almost twice that distance. )
Tiryns’ first period of prosperity came in the mid-third millennium bc, when both the acropolis and a relatively large area outside the walls show signs of well-built houses. The most remarkable structure, on the highest part of the acropolis (the Upper Citadel), was an impressive – if now somewhat unimaginatively named – Round Building, 28 m (90 ft) in diameter.
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Remains of bastions suggest it rose to a significant height, sufficient to be clearly seen from afar, not least from the sea. Its purpose remains unknown: was it a fortified stronghold, a temple, a palace or perhaps a granary? Later in the third millennium much of Tiryns (including the Round Building) was burned, and only around 1400 bc did it regain its previous prosperity. The Upper Citadel was encircled by a ‘Cyclopean’ wall and a splendid palace was constructed, with plastered and finely painted reception rooms.
As the chief port of the wealthy Argolid, Tiryns became a rich entrepot. Evidence suggests that merchant ships laden with foodstuffs, fabrics and precious metals reached here from Egypt by way of Syria and Crete. Towards the end of the thirteenth century bc further ‘Cyclopean’ walls were built around the Lower Citadel. The palace was rebuilt, its floors decorated with leaping dolphins and its plastered walls painted with scenes of elaborately coiffed women walking in procession, young men with chariots, and hunting dogs attacking a boar. The town expanded considerably, and a dam was built to contain and divert the nearby stream, which had previously been prone to flood the area to the north. But around 1200 bc an earthquake appears to have destroyed most of the town and citadel.
Unusually for Mycenaean palace settlements, Tiryns experienced renewed building in the twelfth century bc. Earthquake-damaged buildings were cleared away, a new palatial hall constructed in the Upper Citadel, and the town expanded to cover some 24 ha (60 acres). However, this prosperity came to an abrupt halt and – for reasons still unknown – by around 1060 bc Tiryns was largely abandoned.
While the Upper Citadel remained partially inhabited, Tiryns never regained its former status. In 494 bc it offered asylum to slaves escaping in the aftermath of Argos’ defeat by Sparta at the Battle of Sepeia, and in 479 bc it sent four hundred hoplites to fight at the Battle of Plataea, five times the number sent by nearby Mycenae. Thanks partly to this heroic intervention, in his epic Thebaid (an extract from which begins this chapter), the Roman Statius imagined Tiryns’ army eagerly taking part in the expedition of the Seven Against Thebes.
In 468 bc, Argos annexed Tiryns. Some inhabitants settled in Argos itself, others moved a few miles east, founding the town of Halieis (modern Porto Heli). When Pausanias visited Tiryns he found it deserted but nonetheless he marvelled:
The wall, which is the work of Cyclopes and all that still remains, is made from undressed stones, each so large that a team of two mules could not move even the smallest by the slightest distance from where it is set.
He added: Greeks tend to admire foreign sights more than homegrown ones. Eminent historians have provided exhaustive descriptions of the pyramids of Egypt, but none has made even the briefest mention of the Treasury of Minyas [in Orchomenos near Thebes] or the walls of Tiryns, even though both are just as remarkable.
Because of its walls, Tiryns’ location was never lost, and in 1876 Heinrich Schliemann began excavations at the site. They have been continued ever since by the German Archaeological Institute and Greek Archaeological Service.
At first sight unprepossessing, Tiryns lies on the main road 8 km (5 miles) from Argos and 4 km (2^ miles) from Nafplio. From the large car park a path leads south along the east wall to a steep ramp. At the top is the (now ruined) monumental gateway with postholes for folding doors. Beyond is the Upper Citadel. A courtyard leads (left) to a series of impressive galleries – six vaulted chambers built into the outer wall – and (left) to the foundations of a pillared propylaion. This gives on to a courtyard. A further gallery (left) set into the wall is accessed by a covered stairway; through a colonnaded courtyard (right) a series of antechambers lead to the megaron, the site of the earlier Round Building (no longer visible). Right is a smaller megaron, perhaps part of the women’s quarters. Left is a fine postern gate and a secret staircase leading to a small gateway. The Lower Citadel contains fewer identifiable buildings. A further two staircases tunnel down into underground cisterns outside the walls.
Many finds from Tiryns, the nearby hilltop citadel of Midea and its related Mycenaean cemetery at Dendra (both well worth a visit) are housed in the Archaeological Museum at Nafplio. These include a stunning suit of Mycenaean armour, complete with boar’s-tusk helmet and fragments of frescoes and flooring. Other artifacts (including frescoes) are in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The first capital of independent Greece from 1829 to 1834, Nafplio is a charming, curiously Italianate seaside town with a hilltop castle, a delightful waterfront, an island fortress, fine Venetian architecture, tempting shops and arguably the best ice cream parlour in Greece (the Antica Gelateria di Roma).