Crete's first Greeks
Artist's reconstruction of Mycenae
When they arrived (from parts unknown) in southern and central Greece sometime around 2000 BCE, the Mycenaeans were, like most members of the Indo-European language community, a simple folk fond of tending their herds and making war on their neighbors. But they made great cultural and economic strides over the next millennium, largely by emulating the ways of the more advanced Minoan civilization. Gradually they abandoned a political system that didn’t extend much higher than the level of small-time tribal chieftains. Over time, they built up to a patchwork of regionally powerful kingdoms whose rulers built big palaces in big cities (like the Minoans) and amassed collections of fine jewelry and artwork (also like the Minoans). One feature of their cities that had no Minoan counterpart was massive walls for defense. That isn’t surprising, since the Mycenaeans were a society of warriors who did most of their fighting on land. That was a custom they never abandoned. They also adopted Minoan nautical technology as avidly as they did Minoan political economy and art. (They even went in for seaborne trade, although at first this was sometimes hard to distinguish from piracy.)
The Lions Gate and Cyclopean walls at Mycenae
This picture shows the Lion Gate of Mycenae (at the lower left in the drawing above), approached within massive stone ramparts. The huge stones are called “Cyclopean walls” because Greeks in later ages couldn’t believe that humans had been able to work with such huge stones, and attributed the work to the race of one-eyed giants whom they believed had occupied the country in the remote past. Archaeologists believe, however, that these walls were constructed during a relatively late rebuilding of the city’s defenses, around 1350 BCE.

The lions are now headless; their heads were carved separately, perhaps from comparatively soft soapstone that didn’t survive. They aren’t playing a supporting role here in any architectural sense. Instead, they conceal a triangular opening that the builders left above the lintel to avoid placing more weight on it than it could stand. Such “relieving triangles,” built as corbeled arches, were common at the time. The slab on which the lions were carved puts a much lighter load on the lintel than a solid wall of building stones.
'Cyclopean' wall at Tiryns
A second picture gives you a better idea of the scale of the “Cyclopean” building blocks. As in the construction of the pyramids, the bigger-than-life scale should be credited less to superhuman agency than to the employment of many, many slaves.

(These stones are not at Mycenae, but at nearby Tiryns. The picture is from the Web, and I don’t know the the people. I hope they’ll forgive me for making them famous.)

Deceased Mycenaean kings were given very fancy burials, featuring huge tombs (deep shafts at first, beehive-shaped chambers later on) stuffed with treasure. This ostentation was unlike anything that has been found in Minoan cemeteries, and tends to suggest that the Mycenaeans were more deeply into the cult of personality than the “true Cretans.” Some scholars, noting that a massive royal tomb makes a dynastic as well as a personal statement, have taken this difference as evidence that Minoan kingship, unlike Mycenaean, was not hereditary—but that may be overanalysis.
Death mask from a tomb in Mycenae ('Agamemnon')
The gold mask in this picture was laid over the face of a deceased king in Mycenae. Heinrich Schliemann, a resourceful and highly imaginative archaeologist who excavated both Troy and and Mycenae in the 19th century, was convinced that the Iliad was no mere legend. He did history a service by proving that ancient Troy really did exist, but he was prone to taking matters a bit too far, as when he labeled some gold items he found at Troy “Priam’s Treasury,” and had his wife photographed wearing “the jewels of Helen.” When he found this mask in one of the shaft tombs at Mycenae, and looked at the skull underneath, he afterwards declared that “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” Needless to say, there is no convincing basis for this identification. The shaft grave it was found in is now known to be about 300 years earlier than the time of the Trojan War. Schliemann apparently didn’t insist that the body was Agamemnon’s, but his name has clung to the mask ever since.

You might wonder why the Mycenaeans, once they became literate, didn’t carve names and epitaphs on their royal tombs, but it seems that they pretty much restricted writing to business uses. Perhaps religious beliefs forbade the inscription of names. Or perhaps the bards or priests, whose traditional role it was in Indo-European societies to remember and recite the history of the tribe and the deeds of its kings, threatened an industrial action if this work was turned over to scribes. We’ll never know.
The name Mycenaean, an ethnic label bestowed by modern scholars, is taken from one of the greatest and most intensively excavated of their cities, but they had other names. Homer’s poems call them variously Achaeans, Danaans, and Argives. (Those three names may correspond to minor ethnic distinctions, though Homer’s choice of one over another in a line of verse was probably determined mostly by the metrical requirements of the line.) Mycenae and its allied cities Argos and Tiryns formed a small kingdom in the northeastern part of the Peloponnesus—a district then and now called Argolis, or the Argolid. This name suggests that Argos (the basis of the Homeric label Argives) was the preeminent city of the three. But in the Iliad, both Argos and Tiryns are ruled by Diomedes, and the supreme leader of the Greek expeditionary force is the king of Mycenae, who was, of course, the Agamemnon, famed in epic and tragedy, whose alleged funeral mask we've looked at above. Pylos, near the southwestern extremity of the Peloponnesus, was the center of another important Mycenaean kingdom.

Inscriptions in Linear B have been found in all these places except Argos, which hasn’t been excavated as thoroughly as the other sites because it is still a thriving city. Inscriptions have also been found in Thebes, which is well northwest of Athens and nowhere near the sea. This technique of writing must have spread outward from the Mycenaean settlement in Crete, given that the characters resemble those of Linear A too closely for coincidence. Linear B probably came to be used throughout the Mycenaean world, but the survival of the clay tablets it was inscribed on is a chancy matter: tablets were not baked, but simply allowed to dry, and eventually they crumbled into dust. The only ones that escaped this fate happened to be stored in places that burned: the heat turned them into ceramics and thus they survived the millennia.
Ruins of Troy/Wilusa (photographer: Özgür Mülazımoǧlu)
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written (or, more accurately, written down) several centuries after the war on Troy, which is thought to have been fought around 1200 BCE. They can’t be taken as accurate historical records, but the picture they give us of a society of aristocratic warriors eager to win riches and fame on the battlefield represents the reality of the Mycenaean world fairly well. Scholars believe that the tale of a military expedition that destroyed the city in Asia Minor was possibly based on a real event, though we can’t be certain. The site of Troy is a layer cake of nine cities, the seventh of which appears to have been destroyed by war not long after 1200. Unlike the Trojans in the Iliad, whose language and customs were identical to those of their Mycenaean besiegers, the people of that 7th-layer Troy probably spoke Luwian, an Indo-European language closely related to Hittite. The city’s alternative name, Ilios, corresponds (according to experts in comparative linguistics) to the Hittite Wilusa, a place-name found in Hittite palace documents that probably refer to the same city, and Wilusa probably comes close to what its natives called it. Apparently it had once been a part of the Hittite empire, but (as part of a larger region) had split off from that empire.

Rather than being fought because the queen of Sparta ran off with a handsome Trojan prince, it’s much more likely that the war was brought on by Troy’s position near the mouth of the Dardanelles, which gave its rulers a measure of control over who could get through to exploit the rich trading opportunities around the Black Sea. The possibility of acquiring this power for themselves would have been a sufficient motive for a Mycenaean attack.

Although Cretans don’t play a large role in the Iliad, Homer did say that Crete (presumably Mycenaean Crete) contributed 80 ships to Agamemnon’s expeditionary force. Here, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, is what he says:
Idomeneus the spear-famed was leader of the Kretans,
those who held Knosos and Gortyna of the great walls,
Lyktos and Miletos and silver-shining Lykastos,
And Phaistos and Rhytion, all towns well established,
And others who dwelt beside them in Krete of the hundred cities.
Besides Idomeneus, the only other Cretan mentioned in the poem is Meriones, who lends Odysseus the boar tusk helmet.

Homer's roster of cities is interesting. Knossós and Phaistós were the sites of the two greatest Minoan palaces that have been found, although by the probable time of this war both palaces (if not the cities around them) had been abandoned. Lyktos, now a tiny mountain village, is near a Minoan site big enough to have been a city. The same is true for Lykastos, though this name no longer belongs to an inhabited village—“silver-shining” is more likely a formulaic description required by the meter than an esthetic or economic observation on Homer’s part. Miletos is now Mílatos, a small town on the north coast, near which Linear A tablets have been found. A Web search turned up no information for Rhytion other than estimates of its possible location, and although Gortys/Gortyna is very well known, scholars are uncertain about whether it existed during Minoan times or wasn’t built until later—obviously in time for the Trojan war, if we can trust Homer. He created the Iliad several centuries after Crete had ceased to be a Mycenaean, let alone a Minoan, island. But with at least five of the seven cities in his list having been Minoan (and two of those five among the primary palatial cities of the Minoan glory days), it seems possible that the poet was drawing on the traditions of his day regarding the remote past.