Orchomenos in Boeotia, with a Late Bronze Age palace decorated by colorful frescoes and an adjacent royal tomb dubbed the "Treasury of Minyas" by its excavator, the pioneering archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, was one of the richest and most important centers of the Mycenaean world. Famous also for its well-preserved fortification walls of the late Classical period, Orchomenos was one of the very first towns to worship the graces, or Charites, for whom musical and poetic competitions were held at a festival called the Charitesia. The city also held the Agrionia, a festival of Dionysus that involved the ritual pursuit of women by a man.
The site was occupied continuously from the Neolithic period to the time of Alexander the Great, but it was during the later 14th and 13th centuries BC that Orchomenos first became a settlement of major importance. According to tradition, it was then the capital of a royal dynasty established by Minyas. He and his followers (the so-called Minyans) are said to have come from the Thessalian seaboard to settle in Boeotia. As part of the enormous project of draining Lake Kopaïs a masterful feat of prehistoric technology the Mycenaean inhabitants of western Boeotia fortified a series of sites to protect their massive hydraulic engineering venture, among them the palatial sites of Gla and Orchomenos. The Minyan dominion over this portion of Boeotia was acclaimed by Homer as possessing treasures equal to that of Egyptian Thebes.
In 600 BC, Orchomenos joined the Boeotian League. Although they were among the first in Boeotia to issue their own coinage striking coins as early as 550 BC they did not include the emblem of the league on their coinage until 387 BC. Orchomenos may have also joined the so-called Kalaurian Amphiktyony because of its authority over Boeotian coastal towns, although this is uncertain.
We do, however, know much about the complex Classical military history of Orchomenos, which eventually led to the town's destruction in 349 BC. In 480-479 BC, the Orchomenians, like their neighbors the Thebans, joined forces with the invading Xerxes against their fellow Greeks in the Persians Wars. Around 447 BC, the site was the headquarters of the oligarchic exiles who freed Boeotia from Athenian control. By the 4th century BC, Orchomenos had decided upon an anti-Theban policy and joined with Sparta against Thebes in 395 and again in 394 BC. It was saved after Leuktra in 371 only by the good will of Epaminondas. With his departure for campaigns in the northern Aegean, however, the door was opened for his fellow Thebans to exact their revenge. On the pretext of an Orchomenian conspiracy, the Thebans sacked their traditional rivals' city in 364. Although the Phocians rebuilt the city in 355, the Thebans, unwilling to leave Orchomenos in peace, destroyed it again in 349.
It was after this second destruction that the area played host to one of the most decisive battles in Greek history. In 338 BC, after a whirlwind march couth into central Greece, Philip II of Macedon defeated Thebes and Athens on the plains of Chaironeia, just to the west of Orchomenos. The victory established Macedonian supremacy over the already divided Greek city-states. The battle also demonstrated the young Alexander's military prowess, as he successfully commanded the heavy cavalry of the left wing and, at the age of just 18, annihilated the elite corps of the Theban army, the 300-member Sacred Band. Having finally rid Orchomenos of its centuries-old enemy, Philip and Alexander rebuilt Orchomenos, complete with a refurbished set of fortification walls that still stand today.
Orchomenos saw little activity after 338 until the Roman general Sulla once again put Chaironeia on the military map in 86 BC by defeated Archelaus, a general of Mithridates VI of Pontus, in a battle that once again was a climactic encounter of real strategic importance. In more recent history, the plains below Orchomenos saw military action again in 1311 AD when the Duchy of Athens was conquered b the Catalan Grand company after the battle of Kephissos.
Today, the archaeological site of Orchomenos lies at the fringes of the busy modern agricultural town of the same name. Aside from the imposing walls of its fortified acropolis, its most prominent monuments are the Mycenaean tholos tomb, the Hellenistic theater, and the early medieval church of Panaghia Skirpou, built almost entirely of re-used classical blocks. The deserted acropolis' principal denizens are now rumored to be an unusually large number of snakes.