by Cody Andersson
The Mycenaean era is famed for its impressive cities and Cyclopean masonry style. Mycenae and Tiryns are two common examples of both of these. A third and just as valid example is Midea, a hilltop citadel in the Argolid, on the Peloponnese. It exhibits a similar impressive feel and Cyclopean masonry. Eleon, a satellite community of Thebes in Boeotia, seems at first to be an unlikely comparison with Midea, but in many ways reflects the core themes of Mycenaean city-building present in Mycenae and Midea.
Midea was a citadel built on a hill approximately 300 metres in height. It flourished in the Bronze Age before being severely damaged by an earthquake at the end of the thirteenth century BCE. At the transition into the Archaic period it hosted a sanctuary but did not reach its height in the Mycenaean period ever again.
Eleon has a similar history of height and decline. It reached its apex in the Bronze Age, as Midea did, but by the Classical period had lost its previous prosperity. By that point it appears to have become a centre of religion more than population or economy. Any remaining inhabitants would have fled in the face of foreign invasions during the Byzantine period.
One major similarity between Midea and Eleon concerns fortifications. Both are encircled by defensive walls, though Midea in a much grander scale.
The Cyclopean wall at Midea is still a massive structure and would have been a significant challenge for any attacker. Eleon features a polygonal wall, not as imposing as the Cyclopean wall at Midea, but still impressive in its own right and context. Rather than containing massive boulders it is built of large slabs of locally sourced rock carved into whichever (usually irregular) shape fits best with surrounding slabs. While less of a challenge to besiegers than a Cyclopean wall, it would nevertheless have been a substantial barrier not easily bypassed. Siege warfare in ancient Greece did not essentially exist until the Classical period, several centuries after the polygonal wall’s construction in the Archaic period.
As such, an army hypothetically attacking Eleon in the Archaic period would have to take the town by attacking unexpected or by persuading the inhabitants to surrender, as there were no ladders or catapults to use.
Accordingly the polygonal wall, while more for show than function, was in its period still a significant challenge for potential attackers. Much of this is applicable to Midea, perhaps more so in that siege warfare was even more nonexistent then.
Midea’s location on a high hill is an important feature of its construction. It overlooks much of the surrounding area, from the hills in almost every direction to Nafpoli and the Argolic Gulf to the south-east.
These commanding sight lines are an important first defence, though a Cyclopean wall would be difficult to take even by surprise. Eleon is similarly placed on a small hill with good sight lines over the Boeotian plains. While not as elevated as Midea, Eleon further exploits its location through the use of at least one tower in the southeastern section of polygonal wall. Future occupants recognised this further advantage as well, as evidenced in the tower of either Frankish or Ottoman construction, or both, some distance to the west of Eleon.
Although Midea and Eleon are built on entirely different scales, the intent of their construction and location are readily comparable. Two core themes of Bronze Age, and specifically Mycenaean, city design are reflected in each place. The walls of both represent a substantial barrier to hostile intent despite the polygonal wall at Eleon being more for show than defence. Both places occupy commanding locations over their respective surrounding areas, and Eleon specifically has towers dedicated to further exploiting this terrain advantage. While Midea and Eleon appear not at all similar, they in fact share and reflect central themes of architecture and geophysical location in their eras.