Achaeans: who were they and what do we know about this ancient culture?
Here is what is known about this mysterious tribe linked to Ancient Greece.
In many sources from Ancient Greece and some from Egypt, Anatolia and nearby territories there is a people known as the Achaeans who are attributed to have participated in the famous war against Troy, the same one where a wooden horse was used to overthrow it.
However, although much is said about them in both the Iliad and the Odyssey it is not clear who they were and exactly where they could be said to have lived.
Who were the Achaeans? Were they a lineage of Greeks? a Balkan ethnic group? an ethnic group from the Peloponnese? Mycenaeans? These are all questions that many historians have asked themselves based on archaeology, various sources and testimonies of Classical Greece, questions that arise when trying to know this people.
Who were the Achaeans?
The Achaeans (from the Latin "Achaei" and this in turn from the Greek "Ἀχαιοί", "Akhaioí") is the name received by different peoples of the Classical Antiquity.. It is one of the collective names used to refer to the Greeks as a whole in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, along with two other terms to refer to the inhabitants of most of what is now Greece: Danaans and Argives. In addition to these Greek sources, the Achaeans appear in the Bible, although they are referred to as Achaeans.
But apart from in literature, the Achaeans existed or, at least, it was the name used to refer to the inhabitants of Achaea, a region located north of the Peloponnese. The city-states of this region formed a confederation called the Achaean League, an alliance that was really influential between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC.
Originally the Achaeans were an Indo-European people who inhabited the southern Balkans from 2000 B.C. onwards and later gave rise to the Mycenaean civilization.although in academic historiography it is preferred to refer to them as "Mycenaeans" proper. It is believed that this people of the Bronze Age departed from the Balkans to Greece around 1800 B.C., being one of the first Indo-European settlers to reach this peninsula.
There they would constitute different kingdoms, being remarkable those of Mycenae and Tirinto. Later, around 1400 BC, these Achaeans "peacefully" conquered the island of Crete and introduced some innovations, fundamental for later Greek civilization: the chariot, horses, weapons forged in bronze and greater sumptuousness and protocol in the funeral ceremonies of the nobles.
The Achaeans of the Peloponnesus had a social organization that revolved around the family through kinship and were governed by a political system led by a warrior prince. Among their most important divinities were the goddess Potnia and the god Poseidon, king of the seas.
Myth of the appearance of the Achaeans in Achaia
In Greek mythology the perceived cultural divisions among the classical Greeks were represented as legendary lines of descendants who identified themselves in kinship groups, with each line derived from the Achaeans.each line deriving from an ancestor who gave that line its name. Each Greek "ethnic group" was named after one of its heroic ancestors:
- Achaeans that of Achaeus.
- Danaos that of Danao.
- Cadmeos that of Cadmus.
- Aeolios that of Aeolus.
- Jonios that of Ion.
- Doros that of Doro.
- Helenos that of Helén.
The myth tells that Cadmus of Phoenicia, Danaus of Egypt and Pelops of Anatolia made a place for themselves in mainland Greece, being assimilated and transformed into Greeks.. Helén, Graikos, Magnis and Macedonia were sons of Deucalion and Pyrrha, who were the only survivors of the great flood. The ethnic group was originally named after the eldest son, the Graikoi of Graikos (the word "Greek" comes from here) but was later renamed after another of his sons, Helen, who had proved to be the strongest.
The sons of Helén and the nymph Orséis were Doro, Juto and Eolo. The sons of Juto and Creusa, daughter of Erecteo, were Ion and Achaeus who was the creator of the race of the Achaeans. When Achaeus' uncle, Aeolus in Thessaly, died, Aeolus became lord of Phthiotide, which was renamed Achaea.
The Achaeans and the Mycenaeans
Some experts have identified the Achaeans as the Mycenaeans, a culture related to the Greeks.Some experts have identified the Achaeans as the Mycenaeans, a culture related to the Greeks and that in fact there is evidence that they spoke a very ancient dialect of the Greek language. Others believe that the Achaeans did not enter Greece before the Dorian invasions of the 12th century BC.
As described by Homer, the Achaeans were a people who came from the continental and western islands of Greece such as the island of Crete, the island of Rhodes and other nearby islands, except for the Cyclades islands. It is curious that these islands coincide precisely with those where the Mycenaean culture developed between the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC according to the current opinion of modern archeology.
Another reason why it is believed that Mycenaeans and Achaeans must have been the same is the fact that they had as administrative capital of their territories of influence precisely the city of Mycenae, which was considered as such by colonized peoples such as the Cretans. The influence of the Mycenaeans spread throughout Asia Minor, the Iberian Peninsula and Ancient Egypt..
Cultural characteristics of the Achaean-Mycenaeans
Taking the idea that the Achaeans were Mycenaean, the main cities of this people were Mycenae, their administrative capital, Tirynthos, Pylos, Athens, Thebes, Yolcos and Orcomenus, besides having settlements in Macedonia, Epirus and some Aegean islands. Based on history and part of the myth, the most renowned feat by the Achaeans would be their 10-year siege of TroyTroy, a city that wielded great military and economic power and posed a serious threat to Mycenae.
The Achaeans were organized in three social classes, not very different from those of the rest of the Greek cultures. The most privileged stratum was that of the high administrative officials in the palace who exercised political-military power; below them were the citizens, the only ones who were required to pay taxes but who had some rights; and the slaves, who were used exclusively in palaces and religious buildings.
The Achaean-Mycenaeans buried their nobles with all kinds of treasures and seated them in curious hexagonal-shaped sepulchres, arranged in the manner of a honeycomb. The burial of the warrior class was more humble, simply taking the weapons and armor they had used in life. However, those who had been war heroes were cremated and their ashes were placed in urns decorated with shiny and beautiful gold masks.
Because the period of splendor of the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures coincided in the same century, historians believe that both ethnic groups were involved in a conflict that would lead to the subsequent disappearance of the Achaeans, although this is also a matter of debate. What is known is that after the fall of Mycenae because of the action of the Dorians the survivors were dispersed by several Greek islands and also reached the Anatolian peninsula, present-day Turkey.
Where does their name come from?
Today Greeks refer to themselves as "Hellenes" and, in fact, the official name of their country, modern Greece, is the Hellenic Republic. Modern Hellenes share common traits and identity that define them as a fairly homogeneous nation.Most of them have Greek as their mother tongue, as well as a rich gastronomy, customs and traditions, shared by their ancestors and which have survived the Turkish influence to which they were subjected for so many centuries.
However, this idea of a single nation has not always existed. In classical antiquity, Greek culture was divided into a number of city-states, and their inhabitants, although conscious of being one nation and its inhabitants, although conscious of being similar, had no idea of a nation or united ethnic group as we understand it today. Thus, to refer to themselves they used different denominations such as Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians and, also, Achaeans, designating with these words the inhabitants of the different territories of the classical Greek civilization.
However, the idea that "Achaeans the idea that "Achaeans" was used as a synonym for the Greeks of the time is controversial.. There are testimonies that would indicate that rather than another denomination used to call the Greeks as a whole, as Homer did, it must have been a culture of its own, a people that happened to live in the lands of present-day Greece and that shared Greek traits but were not exactly that. In fact, there are documents from other civilizations that give some strength to this hypothesis.
The Hittites were a people who settled mostly in the Anatolian peninsula, in a country they called Hatti. In some of their texts it is mentioned that to the west was a nation called Ahhiyawa.. A letter is the first document in which this country is mentioned, which summarizes the violations of the treaty of the Hittite vassal Madduwatta who is also called Ahhiya.
Another important document is that of the Tawagalawa letter, written by a king whom historiography has failed to ascertain who he was but who must have lived between the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. The letter was addressed to the king of Ahhiyawa, treating him as an equal and suggesting that Miletus, called in Hittite Milawata, was under his control. It also refers to an earlier Wilusa episode, involving hostilities on the part of Ahhiyawa.
This Ahhiya has been identified with the Achaeans of the Trojan War, and Wilusa would be the name by which the Hittites referred to the city of Troy. In fact, there is some similarity between the names of the Trojan acropolis, Wilion (Ϝιλιον), later Ilion (Ίλιον) and the name Wilusa in Hittite.
Likewise, this remains an open debate since, beyond the phonetic similarities between the Hittite term Ahhiyawa and Greek Akhaioi (pronounced /ajéi/), there is still no conclusive evidence, even after it was discovered that Mycenaean Linear B was in fact an ancient form of Greek and, therefore, the Mycenaeans spoke this language and could be classified as Greeks linguistically speaking.
Another civilization that apparently established contact with these Akkadians was the Egyptians.. During the fifth year of the reign of the pharaoh Merenptah, several sources mention the existence of a confederation of peoples from Libya and the north who attacked the western Delta. Among the ethnic names of the invaders is that of "Ekwesh" which, according to some historians, would have been neither more nor less than the Achaeans themselves.
In fact, Homer mentions an attack by the Achaeans in the Egyptian Delta. Herodotus, another great classical thinker, states in his first book that Helen had been taken to Egypt during the Trojan War and that, afterwards, the Greeks went to the African nation to recover her.
The Achaean League
We cannot finish talking about the Achaeans without mentioning one of the most important political alliances of Classical Greece. The Achaean League ( Greek "τὸ Ἀχαϊκόν", "tò Achaïkón") was a confederation of cities in the region of Achaia.. At its peak the League came to control the entire Peloponnesian peninsula, except for the southern region of Laconia. This socio-political alliance would come to an end with the Roman domination over the Greek lands, leading to its dissolution in 146 BC after the Achaean War.
The existence of this league is quite long. There was a first league in the 5th century B.C., the result of the union of four cities and it hardly intervened in armed conflicts during this century. Later, in the time of Herodotus (484-425 BC), the league was already a little more extensive and consisted of twelve city-states: Egira, Egas, Helice, Ripes, Bura, Egio, Pelene, Patras, Pharas, Dime, Óleno and Tritera. Ripes and Egas disappeared almost immediately, being replaced by Cerinea and Leontio. It is not known what were the relations between these cities and surely it was a religious rather than a political league.
In principle, the Achaean League the Achaean League had as its headquarters the city of Helice and as its tutelary god (as a patron-saint) Poseidon. However, when this city was destroyed by a tidal wave in 373 BC the seat was moved to Egio and devotion to the god of the seas was lost, being replaced by Zeus and Demeter as new tutelary gods.
In 338 B.C. During the battle of Chaeronea the league fought alongside Athens and Thebes, but was defeated by the Macedonians. After that it was very weakened, so much so that it could not even take advantage of the advantageous event that was the death of Alexander the Great and the beginning of the Lamiac war. In fact, it was so weak that it could not resist much longer and ended up dissolving. Demtrius Poliorcetes and Cassander of Macedon imposed garrisons on the cities and the cities ended up being politically separated.
The Achaeans arouse quite a lot of mystery in historiography because it is not very well known what they were.. As we have seen, some consider that it was one of the many denominations that were used to refer to the Greeks as a whole, while others attribute to it a purely literary existence and others believe that Achaeans and Mycenaeans were synonymous terms and others only see as something "Achaean" the name given to the political-religious league formed north of the Peloponnese.
Be that as it may, their name went down in history and much has been written about their possible origin, their cultural traits, what they believed in, what great historical events they participated in and whether or not they were really the same as the Mycenaeans. The debate is still open and that fans even more the flames of curiosity and the desire to know more about the real Achaeans.
- Hernandez, Gonzalo Fernandez. La historia de Grecia desde sus orígenes a las invasiones dorias, p.38, in Boletín Millares Carlo 27 (2008): 35-52.
- Joachim Latacz (2003), Troya y Homero: hacia la resolución de un enigma, p.181. Barcelona: Ediciones destino. ISBN 84-233-3487-2.
- Huxley, G. L. Achaeans and Greeks (1960); Güterbock, Hans G. "The Hittites and the Aegean World: Part 1. The Ahhiyawa Problem Reconsidered" American Journal of Archaeology 87.2 (abril 1983), pp. 133-138; y Machteld J. Mellink, "Part 2. Archaeological Comments on Ahhiyawa-Achaians in Western Anatolia", pp. 138-141.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)