Treasury of Atreus

Mycenae, Greece

Between 1400 and 1200 b.c. Mycenae was the most powerful ancient Greek city-state. Its ruins now stand above the Plain of Argolis in the Peloponnese, near the modern village of Mikínai. The fortified city was the seat of the tragic, semilegendary Atreus, whose dynasty was cursed because he fed his brother Thyestes with his own children. To gain fair winds to take his warships to Troy, Atreus’s son Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to the gods. After the Trojan War, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra killed him before she herself was murdered by her son Orestes. Mycenae was defended by walls so massive that the later Greeks attributed their construction to the mythical giant Cyclops. Outside the walls to the south and flanking the main approach to the citadel lies the mid-thirteenth-century-b.c. tomb—one of nine similar structures—that the second-century-a.d. Greek traveler Pausanias identified as the Treasury of Atreus. Although it is neither a treasury nor directly linked with Atreus, the building is an architectural feat, the epitome of the tholos (beehive) tomb. One historian observes that 1,000 years passed before the Greeks put “such technical perfection … at the service of such a grandiose architectural design” (Norwich 1984, 135). The Treasury of Atreus demonstrates first and more than any other building the effectiveness of the corbeled dome, a structural technique that recurs in European architecture, for example, in the sixth-century Hagia Sofia in Constantinople and the fifteenth-century Florence Cathedral dome.

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The Treasury of Atreus, Mycenae, Greece; architect(s) unknown, mid-thirteenth century.b.c. The dromos, looking west to the door.

Mycenaean tholos tombs were first used early in the fifteenth century b.c. They were probably reserved for only the highest echelons of society—kings and their immediate families. Others, even if aristocratic, were usually buried in chamber tombs, such as those found within the Mycenaean citadel. The tholos comprised