Mycenaean Tiryns

Mycenaean Tiryns has been dated between c1500 and c1000 BC with recent archaeology placing the date at c1350 BC. Tiryns was built near the Argolic Gulf and was a very important trading centre. It derived its name from a son of Argus named Tiryns, Argus being a son of Zeus. Tiryns archaeological site was excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876.

A visit to Mycenaean Tiryns includes exploring the Tiryns acropolis, the cyclopean walls, the citadel entrance with the Great Ramp and gates, the upper citadel with the remaining evidence of the palace and megaron, the lower citadel and houses, and the Tiryns Tholos Tombs which are located beyond the citadel walls.

An update to this post is now on our new site at euscentia.com.
You can reach the update directly by clicking on Tiryns: Mycenaean Citadel And Palace Inside Cyclopean Walls

Major Themes
  • History and map of Tiryns
  • Cyclopean walls and fortifications of Tiryns
  • Tiryns citadel and megaron

Tiryns Location

Mycenaean Tiryns was located historically at Tirintha in Argolis, just 20 km south of Mycenae, and approximately 1.6 km from the Argolic Gulf. Historically, 2,500 years ago in the Bronze Age, Tiryns was much closer to the shores of the gulf, perhaps just a few hundred metres.

A Brief History of Tiryns

The emergence of a civilisation at Tiryns may well have emulated that of Mycenae – the result of the succession of regional influence following the decline of the Minoans. This was referred to in our post decribing the civilisation and culture of Mycenae as a Boronze Age Mycenaean Community

The earliest fortifications of the Tiryns city state were modest but were transformed when the prestige of its rulers increased. This resulted from the development of economic links across the Aegean and possibly due to rivalries with other Mycenaean city states such as Mycenae. Rivalries would also have promoted a ruling class who would have sought to expand their military defences.

Whereas it is curious that two rival Mycenaean cities of Tiryns and Mycenae were established with such proximity, it did not inhibit either from cultivating the plains of the Argolis or from trading from the shores of the Argolic Gulf. How power was distributed between Tiryns and Mycenae is unknown, but the favoured explanation would have to be that in order for Mycenae to access the port at Tiryns, then Mycenae would have to have had some authority over Tiryns.

Tiryns was abandoned following the decline of the Mycenaean period during the 12th Century BC after it had experienced an earthquake and fire. It enjoyed a brief moment of renewal when it battled along with other city states against the invasions of Greece by Persia, but after its destruction by Argos later in the 5th Century BC, Tiryns was abandoned and failed to recover.

Map of the Tiryns Acropolis

Plan of Mycenaean Citadel at Tiryns
Tiryns Citadel Plan

The citadel at Mycenaean Tiryns is just as imposing as Mycenae. True to custom, the Tirynthians built the citadel on an acropolis with steep sided cliffs. The Tiryns acropolis is a craggy limestone outcrop some 20m above the relatively flat Argolid Plain that surrounds it and 26 m above the level of the sea that bordered it. Mycenaean Tiryns was not unique in this respect. For example, a contemporaneous but remote bronze-age civilisation, the Hittites, constructed their capital of Hattusha on an acropolis and many of the features of the Hattusha citadel are common to those of Tiryns and Mycenae – including a lion relief in the posts of the main gate.

The construction of the Tiryns citadel on the acropolis would have provided the Tirynthians with impressive views over the Argolis. The flat plains, which are suggestive of a former sea level, would have been excellent locations for cultivating grains and vegetables, and for feeding livestock.

Tiryns citadel with circuit limestone fortifications
The intimidating limestone fortifications of the elevated citadel of Tiryns Greece

Tiryns Fortifications

Whereas the citadel of Tiryns did not benefit from being surrounded by hills and ravines as did Mycenae, the commanding, elevated stone fortifications that enclosed the Tiryns citadel certainly provided protection.
Defence of the citadel was also enhanced by its proximity to the Argolic Gulf. Just as the sea has retreated over the millennia across the Thessaly Plain from Thermopylae, so the sea has retreated from Tiryns across the Argolis. The ground that is now firm and arable near Tiryns was formerly subject not only to encroaching seas, but also to fluctuations in tides and storms. All would have caused the ground between the gulf and the citadel to be saturated and difficult to traverse, the latter particularly being the case if invaders from the gulf had to carry heavy equipment for battle.

The Argolic Gulf could be easily viewed from the Tyrins citadel
View from citadel at Tiryns over Argolis and Argolic Gulf

Tiryns Cyclopean Walls

The monumental circuit walls at Tiryns were constructed before those at Mycenae and so the Tiryns walls would be expected to share many of the features of those at Mycenae. This is certainly the case and the scale of the fortifications at Tiryns loses nothing by comparison.

The fortification at ancient Tiryns traced a perimeter of 750m with a height of 13m and was particularly wide on the defensive southern side of the citadel – the side of the citadel that faced the gulf. Tiryns’ walls would have taken several years to complete and as was the case with Mycenae, the spaces between the blocks were filled and smoothed with smaller stones and gravels. This would also have helped to consolidate and strengthen the wall.

An obvious comparison with Mycenae is that the walls at Tiryns were assembled from massive blocks that were shaped similarly to those at Mycenae. The blocks used for the Tiryns walls were generally larger than those used at Mycenae, some measuring up to 3m long. They were placed adjacent to each other to construct a wall up to 8m thick. The blocks at Tiryns, as at Mycenae, were fitted to a foundation of uneven limestone bedrock. Such could be one of the practical reasons for the magnitude of the thickness of the blocks. It was necessary to stabilise the walls by width in the absence of a sound horizontal footing. This would also apply if part of the wall had to be constructed away from bedrock in an earth trench.

Uneven limestone bedrock or earth trenches provided the foundations for the fortifications at Tiryns Greece
Massive limestone block fortifications adapted to uneven limestone bedrock at Tiryns

The limestone used for the Tiryns walls may have been quarried from within the citadel, perhaps the area of the lower citadel. This is not an unreasonable assumption as you will notice the difference in elevation between the lower and upper citadels. Quarrying from within the citadel would have saved the Tirynthians from having to drag the quarried blocks any further than necessary. It is likely that the quarrying was done with crude wooden hammers and wedges, with picks and chisels fashioned from timber with stone cutting edges. The earlier building preceded iron and bronze would probably not have survived the heavy impacts required. The Mycenaeans at Tiryns would have spit open the massive limestone slabs by driving wedges deep beyond the slab surfaces. Men would then have worked simultaneously with levers to force the slab open to produce a block of rock. Limestone does not have cleavage (the inclination to separate along an internal plane to produce a smooth face) but instead, on splitting, produces an uneven fracture surface. The Tirynthians would have had to rework the freshly quarried rock on occasions to ensure each stone adapted to those around it. The coarse method used to produce a useable block of limestone would have produced a quantity of ungraded limestone gravel and ‘sand’ which would have been used to plug the walls and fill the spaces between the cobbles in the walkways and passages.

The sizes of the limestone blocks would have been an intelligent trade-off between the size of the blocks and the capacity to move them. The larger the blocks the fewer had to be spit from the massive source rock; but blocks of these sizes would have been more difficult to move to their final location. Alternatively, many smaller blocks meant many more had to be relocated.

The final stone would have been transported using ramps, rollers, and carts drawn by donkeys or mules. The rock would have been placed into its final position using crude but effective wood and rope pulley systems. It would have been a monumental task and it would be safe to assume that almost everyone in the Mycenaean Tiryns would have shared the labour.

Tiryns Greek Mythology and Cyclopean Walls

According to Greek mythology, Tiryns Greece was built by Proitos using the Cyclopes under the direction of Perseus. In ancient Tiryns mythology a reference attributing the building of the 13th Century Tiryns walls to Cyclops from Lycia was credited to Homer. It is only fitting that if Mycenae’s walls were described as ‘cyclopean’, then so should those at Tiryns. It was explained in the post about Mycenae that its citadel was unfortified during the early shaft grave period, the fortifications being erected at Mycenae in the 14th Century BC. The fortifications around the early citadel of Tiryns preceded those of Mycenae by about 50 years. Hence, Tiryns’ walls were first described as ‘cyclopean’.

Tiryns Citadel

Tiryns Cyclopean Ramp and Entrance

The main entrance to the citadel at ancient Tiryns was designed to be as intimidating as that at Mycenae. The massive blocks that made up its fortifications sent a signal of power and control. Entry into the Tiryns citadel was via an inclined cobbled ramp situated along and beneath the east wall. The cobbled ramp would have been strategic because it did not provide a secure tread, was uneven and slippery, and an effort would have been required to ascend it if weighed down with protective shields and spears. The hail of projectiles coming from the Tirynthian warriors strategically positioned along the top of the wall would not have made the assault any easier.

Assault on the citadel of Tiryns was impeded by its inclined cobbled ramp to the Outer Gate
Inclined ramp at Tiryns leading to the Outer Gate

Tiryns Ramp Gates

An ascent up the entrance ramp leads to an opening in the 8m thick eastern wall. This is the Outer Gate. On turning left when through the Outer Gate, a corridor continues that features substantial walls on either side of the ramp. The wall on the left was a continuation of the formidable east wall and on the right an inner wall that continued around the citadel. The corridor was sectioned by the Tiryns Middle Gate which was similar in style to the Lion Gate at Mycenae. The Middle Gate had an extensive door jamb constructed of conglomerate slabs. It could be presumed that the lintel would be of the same construction. The jambs have been worked and the remaining pivot holes in the jamb indicate the direction the giant double doors would have swung when opened and closed. The slots that supported the sizeable bar that secured the gates remain. The Middle Gate would have significantly impeded the advance of invaders, perhaps even trapping them in the space between the gates.

The Middle Gate at Tiryns acted as a trap for invading warriors
The Middle Gate at ancient Tiryns

The path through the Inner Gate led to a 25m long Outer Court where some chambers had been built into the wall to store food and water. The image below shows the steps leading up towards the Propylon.

The Inner Gate at Tiryns led to a first courtyard and the propylon’s entrance to the palace
The inner gate at Tiryns and steps toward the Propylon

You will now pass through Propylon and enter the Inner Court where an altar was located. The megaron was situated on the other, or northern, side of this courtyard.

Tiryns Mycenaean Palace and Megaron

The palace of Tiryns was located on the upper citadel and the megaron that was located within the palace had distinctive similarities with the megaron at Mycenae. However, there were two megara in Tiryns. In the centre of the larger megaron was a large, round hearth which was surrounded by four substantial columns designed to support a roof through which had been cut an aperture to vent the smoke. A platform was used to elevate the throne. The intimidating architecture of the citadel as a whole disguised the elaborate decorations that would have adorned the megaron and palace. Frescoes on the walls and stucco decorated floors would not only have added colour but by using the themes of agriculture, sea life, and activities associated with animals and victory, they also reflected what ancient Tiryns valued. The image below shows the expanse of the area of the megara, the central hall of both temple structures and private dwellings (Image credit: Václav Moravec, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Megaron at Tiryns, the central hall of both temple structures and private dwellings
The expansive Megaron at Tiryns

The image below shows the northern extremity of the palace at Tiryns across from the drain of the palace bathroom. The area to the left of the board on the other side of the gap in the wall is the area occupied by the Tiryns palace.

The boards mark the northern end of the palace at Tiryns
Northern end of palace at Tiryns

The complex of domestic chambers within the palace included a large bathroom which featured a floor constructed of one large monolith with dimensions 4m x 3m. The slab is punctured with numerous holes at its eastern end which indicate a position of the bathroom’s partition.

A limestone monolith made up the Tiryns palace bathroom floor with the drain to its left
The bathroom drain of the Tiryns palace left of the monolithic limestone slab floor

The upper citadel was also populated by numerous appended stone houses, built not only for the elite and families, but for attendants and courtiers.

Houses were built along the eastern façade of the Tiryns palace
Houses at Tiryns on the upper citadel adjacent to palace
Houses situated at Tiryns in the upper citadel
Upper citadel Tiryns houses

The walls were heavily reinforced with bastions or guardhouses to defend the citadel.

The palace at Tiryns was well defended by including bastions in the wall
Strategically placed bastions for defence of the palace at Tiryns

Lower Citadel at Tiryns

A flight of stone steps leads down from the elevated precinct of the Tiryns megaron to the lower citadel (see Feature Image). The lower citadel is populated with houses and the walls of the lower citadel are regularly punctuated with portals to provide movement in and out of the citadel. These features facilitated peace time farming and trade. The sought after attraction, the Tiryns Gallery, is along the eastern wall (image credit: Nicholas Hartmann, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Corbelling of the blocks in a Tiryns' gallery
Tiryns gallery showing corbelling of the blocks
Corbelled portal through wall at Tiryns
Corbelled portal at Tiryns

Tiryns Burial Ritual and Graves

You will find the Tiryns Tholos Tombs are in the same style at those at Mycenae. We won’t duplicate the information that we presented in our post about Mycenae, but you will find a tomb similar to Mycenae’s Lion Tholos and a tomb similar to Mycenae’s Tholos Tomb of Clytemnestra. The background to the image of the south-western bastion shows the buses parked in the bay reserved for the tombs.

Mycenaean Tiryns Final Thoughts

  • There is plenty of parking at the site
  • Following a climb up the cobbled ramp the site is reasonably flat and of a suitable grade for all ages
  • Children should be supervised so they do not interfere with research areas, to prevent falling on uneven surfaces and to avoid falling into shafts or similar.
  • Don’t forget the water and sunscreen if you visit in Summer!

We recommend you have an idea of what to look for before you visit the Tiryns ruins. Many of the features of interest, particularly the footprint of the palace and megaron, are etched into the ground and are easily missed. There may also be limited access to some areas of the site due to ongoing research and restoration. But, nevertheless, the visit will provide a worthwhile experience of Mycenaean life. This could be further explored by using the link to our post on Mycenae and its civilisation.