That same morning we had left Athens and shown our offerings to the goddess Demeter at Eleusis. We had stopped at the top of the road to observe the Corinth Canal, Nero’s dream of connecting the Italian peninsula with the East, today crossed not by Roman triremes, but by British luxury boats. At three in the afternoon, when the sun was at its highest, we began to ascend a winding dirt road. Olive and pine trees, the landscape loomed in the form of steep hills and in the background we thought we could sense the Saronic Gulf. Athens again in the distance. But we had already arrived. At that point the Homeric world was born.
From the walls of Troy to Mycenae the road is long, but they are two fundamental homelands in the field of Antiquity. We got out of the car somewhat fatigued. The energies returned to us as we entered that strange structure. There was a fresh air that brought to mind the spear of Achilles, the helmet of Hector. There was the Treasury of Atreus, one of the magical places of archeology. Atreus was the father of Agamemnon, the head of the Greek armies in Troy. A powerful king in a time when iron was not yet known. After a long corridor without lintel, you enter a circular vaulted space. It is a tomb dating from approximately 1,250 BC. The miracle of its forms consists of a false vault, built by superposition of courses. Huge stone blocks fastened without mortar, creating a perfect dark sky, as the nights in Homeric Greece must have been.
But Homer is as important to Achilles as Heinrich Schliemann is to Mycenae. This German man had been obsessed with a book that his parents gave him since childhood. It was about The Iliad and in it the exploits and sufferings of heroes with a human spirit were narrated. In the mid-nineteenth century, Troy was nothing more than a mythical territory that archeology had not reached. It was Schliemann who decided to leave the shop where she worked and go to the Dardanelles, in present-day Turkey, to search for the lost homeland of the Greek heroes. And after much digging he found the city. Troy came to light after more than thirty centuries of silence. Homer recited his verses through the Hellenic courts, not inventing a mythical cycle, but elevating flesh and blood soldiers to eternal status.
And Schliemann was not satisfied. After completing the excavations in Troy, he also wanted to unearth the place where it all started and the ships left to conquer the Mediterranean. With The Iliad in hand, he unearthed the Treasure of Atreus. Now the history of Greece also included those kings and societies that had populated its geography long before Pericles taught democracy to the world.
That Schliemann identified Atreus or Agamemnon with the vaulted tombs is somewhat less. Today, Atreo’s only name remains and his existence is even doubted. But the work of the German archaeologist was irreproachable. It gave name and voice to a civilization before the Greek that we inherited. A society that was divided into social classes and that was ruled by a king or wanax. A world overshadowed by ruthless warfare but one that has left us with a few fortified cities perched on hills. Ultimately, Schliemann proved that Homer’s world was true. And that’s enough to justify the journey of a lifetime.
We had the trunk full of books. Mycenae has inspired the best lines of a long-standing literature. They were the diapers of our civilization. Without her there would be no Sappho, no Euripides, no Alexander, no Rome. We leave the Atreus Treasury behind and follow the route of the road, ascending a few more hills. A few hundred meters away, the ancient city of Mycenae appeared, supported between olive trees and stones. The citadel is surrounded by a cyclopean wall, formed by ashlars as large as the travelers who contemplate them, as Pausanias said in the first travel guide in history. The entrance is guarded by two dangerous animals who look at us suspiciously. It is the Lion’s Gate, the dividing line between literature and the real world. We walked ecstatically along a stone track. We observe the temples that were once raised to honor angry gods, the assemblies where aristocrats voted for capital punishment, the houses where farmers lived with animals.
Mycenae is a mandatory stop for anyone in love with the classical world. But fortune even smiles on travelers. Away from the tourist routes, many are not able to appreciate that behind these stones hides a life so often longed for. Only a few visitors, fleeing the heat with an explorer’s hat, get excited at the layout of the streets of its acropolis. And for the first time in Greece I was able to enjoy a silence disputed with feelings, in the shade of an olive tree. Homer’s sun, which Machado said. And I would add that it is also the sun of all childhoods.