by Ioannis Georganas

Citation: Georganas, I. (2001): "Mycenaean Society: Structure and Economy" Mediterranean Archaeology Resources [available:]

The Mycenaean society was a generally stable and ordered one, with a very strict hierarchical system. This conception emerges mainly from the archaeological evidence and more specifically from the Linear B tablets found at various Mycenaean sites. Authority was strongly centralised and although the palace did not control every aspect of life in every community, it could gather, if necessary, detailed information in any part of the territory that it controlled. The Mycenaean state was headed by a king and beneath him came a very complex social and administrative organisation consisted of various officials of different nature.

Unfortunately, we can say nothing for certain about the political system of the Mycenaean world before the 13th century BC and nothing for certain about any Mycenaean state except Pylos, where large numbers of tablets were found. However, the various similarities between the main three Peloponnesian palaces suggest that the political and economic systems of Mycenae and Tiryns were not very different from those of Pylos. For that reason, most of the information provided in this paper closely relates to the kingdom of Pylos.

At the top of the Mycenaean hierarchy, we find the king. It is no surprise that the king of a Mycenaean kingdom was called wanax, since this is the main Homeric word for kings. Basileus, the other Homeric word for kings and the only one in Classical Greece, had a less exalted meaning to the Mycenaeans and seems to have been used for the ‘chief’ of any working group. The direct information the tablets give us about the wanax is rare. For instance, the Pylian tablet Er 312, which records the size of various estates, provides us with the size of the ‘king’s estate’ which is three times that of the lawagetas (see below) and the estates of all the three telestai together equal the size of the king’s one. From this we can assume that the wanax was a very privileged person. In addition, the adjective wanakteros (of the king) is applied to various craftsmen both at Pylos and Knossos. At Pylos we find a royal potter, a royal fuller and another whose trade is obscure. At Knossos, textiles are often described as ‘royal’.

The only certain administrative action of the Pylian king which is known to us is the appointment of a man called au-ke-wa as a damoklos, an official of some kind (Hooker 1994: 128). This lack of information about the wanax of Pylos has led Ruiperez and Melena (1996: 138) to suggest that the absence of more royal acts maybe is related to the fact that the king was new at the throne.

Although the king of Pylos is never named, Chadwick (1994: 71) proposed that a man named E-ke-ra-wo, whose position in the Pylian hierarchy seems very exalted, has to be the wanax himself. This proposal is based in the analysis of various tablets such as An 610 and Un 718. From tablet An 610, for instance, we learn that E-ke-ra-wo had forty men serving as rowers in the fleet.

Many scholars have claimed that the Mycenaean king was considered divine. The title wanax, upon which this concept is mainly based, was frequently used for gods and in many cases it is not clear when the person referred to by title is a mortal king or a god. For example, when we read in the Pylian tablet Ta 711 ‘when the king appointed au-ke-wa to be a damoklos’, this is plainly a human action. However, in another series of tablets from Pylos (Fr) which records quantities of perfumed oil distributed to various deities, we find the wanax included among those deities. The same can be found in the Of tablets from Thebes.

As we have already seen, the king possessed a large estate, a temenos, and this was conceived as strengthening the notion of his divine status, although it seems that in Mycenaean as well as in later times the temenos did not have a religious nature only. In the Homeric times we have temenea both dedicated to the gods and assigned to mortals but in most cases a temenos was apparently the prerogative of kingship (Mylonas 1966).

Another very important post in the Mycenaean hierarchy was held by the lawagetas (ra-wa-ke-ta). This title is found at both Pylos and Knossos and literally means the ‘leader of the people’. Due to the fact that the word ‘people’ frequently refers to the ‘people arrayed for battle’ in later Greek, many have assumed that this title refers to the commander of the army. This, however, cannot be confirmed by the tablets, especially by those related with the Pylian defence structure. At Knossos the title is found in a tablet referring to a work group. From Pylian tablets we learn that the lawagetas also had a temenos that was one-third the size of the king’s estate, and had various tradesmen allocated to his service such as a wheel-wright and a shepherd (Ruiperez and Melena 1996: 137).

In a society like the Mycenaean one, the king must needed a group of people who could act as his delegates and be his attendants. This class is represented in the Mycenaean society by the hequetai (followers). The Followers must have been a class of aristocrats, maybe kin to the royal house, who acted as senior officers of the administrative system and also could form the elite troops of the army. Their high status can be deduced from various indications. First of all, many of the Followers mentioned on the so called ‘coastguard’ tablets from Pylos, are known by their father’s name in addition to their own, something that does not seem to apply to common people. Additionally, Followers could possess slaves (PY Ed 847) and chariot wheels. From the latter we can assume that all the Followers had chariots. Chadwick (1994: 176) claimed that the chariots could also have military functions along the others. A series of Pylian tablets (An 657, 654, 519, 656, 661) shows us that every look-out unit of the ‘coastguard’ was accompanied by a Follower, who was some sort of liaison officer. When the Followers were receiving reports from the units they could send off their charioteers as despatch riders to send messages back to the wanax.

Except the nobles making up the royal court and administration of the Mycenaean state, we have also a lower class of officials who include the main landholders. This ‘second class’ officials are responsible for the various local communities outside the capital.

As it is well known, the kingdom of Pylos was divided into sixteen administrative districts; each district was controlled by an official called ko-re-te and by his deputy po-ro-ko-re-te. From the Pylian Jn 829 tablet, we find out that the ko-re-te and the po-ro-ko-re-te of each district were responsible for quite large contributions of bronze for spears and javelins (Hooker 1976: 188). In addition to these, we have some other local officials such as the dumate and the so called ‘key-bearers’. Another very important group of people called telestai (te-re-ta), were major holders of land but we do not know how exactly they fit into the Mycenaean hierarchy. According to Chadwick (1994: 76), the telestai ‘stood in the same relation to the district governor as the Followers did to the king; that is to say, they were the most important people in the local districts after the governor and his deputy, who may have been chosen from their ranks’.

Finally, there was an official called damoklos which obviously had to do with the damos (demos in later Greek) although we are not sure about his specific duties.

It is obvious that the Mycenaean economy was based on agriculture. The tablets from both Pylos and Knossos demonstrate that there were two major food-grains produced; wheat and barley.

Agriculture was highly organised and this becomes apparent by the written records of deliveries of land produce, taxes in kind due to the palace, a hare set aside for the gods and so forth. The land used for agriculture was basically of two types, represented by the terms ko-to-na (ktoina) ki-ti-me-na and ko-to-na ke-ke-me-na. The former refers to the privately owned land, the latter to the public one (owned by the damos). Cereals were used as the basis of the rations’ system both at Knossos and Pylos. At Knossos, for example, the rations are quoted for a work-group composed of 18 men and 8 boys as 97.5 units of barley (Am 819).

Except from cereals, the Mycenaeans also produced wine, olive oil, oil from various spices and figs. As far as wine is concerned, it does not figure in the ordinary ration lists and may have been something of a luxury or possibly for export.

The tablets found at the Mycenaean palaces disclose a special interest for the textile industry and we can imply that most of the textiles listed, are not everyday goods, but special ones designed either for the palace or for export. The ‘men of Keftiu’ (Minoans) shown on Egyptian tomb paintings bearing ‘tribute’ to the Pharaoh, have among their offerings lengths of cloth (Taylor 1994: 147).

As the other sectors of the Mycenaean economy, the textile industry, especially at Knossos, was very centralised. The workers received their rations from the palace and this indicates that the were not free workers but employees, very likely slaves. The sources of the textile industry were mainly wool and linen and it is almost certain that various towns specialised in certain kinds of fabric. Some wove the cloth and others provided the decorative ornaments.

During the Mycenaean period there were five metals in use: gold, silver, copper, tin and lead. Iron was not unknown but was very rare. Therefore bronze was the main metal for the making of tools and weapons. Although bronze was the most important metal for the Mycenaeans, it was relatively scarce and expensive. Our knowledge of the Mycenaean bronze industry comes entirely from Pylos where we have some information about smiths. Most of the tablets concerning bronze demonstrate a very tight control of the metal industry by the palace. Chadwick (1994: 141) argues that the total number of smiths in the Pylian kingdom was nearly 400. Such a large force of craftsmen must have been able to produce many tons of goods annually, far more than the domestic need. Therefore Pylos must had a surplus of metal goods for export. From this we can assume that the economy of the Pylian kingdom was heavily dependent upon sea-borne trade, since both the raw materials and the finished goods must have been carried by sea.

In almost all economies production must either be balanced by domestic consumption or the surplus must be exported. For the Mycenaean society trade was a very important feature and if we understand the needs of such a society we can assume that trade was inevitable.

When we examine the tablets from both Pylos and Knossos we see that the production of various agricultural, and in smaller scale ‘industrial’ goods, may well have exceeded local demand. For instance all the thousands of sheep recorded on the Knossos tablets must have produced a quantity of wool that would be far in excess of the domestic requirements and needs. In Pylos, the production of linen goods too may well have exceeded local demand; and if the area of Pylos is the best for the production of linen (even today), there will certainly have been a demand for linen goods all over the East Mediterranean (Taylor 1994: 154).

During the LH II and LH III periods, Mycenaean pottery and other artefacts are found as far as Cyprus, Egypt, the Levant, South Italy and Sicily. Only in Italy and the adjacent areas we have over 50 sites with evidence of Mycenaean presence (Harding 1984). LH IIIA1 (ca.1400 BC) marks the beginning of the Mycenaean expansion into the Aegean and Asia Minor (Georganas 2000). At the same time we have increased Mycenaean presence in the Ionian and Adriatic coast of Southern Italy and in Sicily (Bietti Sestieri 1988).

We can also point to commodities in Mycenaean palaces that must have been imported, especially metals, ivory and semi-precious stones. Copper and tin were most probably imported from Cyprus and all the ivory used in the Mycenaean palaces obviously came from abroad, perhaps Syria. Gold must have been imported from Egypt, coming mainly from the Nubia mines (Ruiperez and Melena 1996: 179).

It is very strange that the presence of a merchant class, at least before the LH IIIC, is highly questionable. In all the tablets so far known, there is no mention of merchants or their activities. If there was such a class, we should have had some indication of their existence. But we must not forget that in a non-monetary economy trade is usually a state monopoly.

The latter part of the 13th century and the beginning of the 12th saw the collapse of the Mycenaean culture. During that period we have the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces and as a result the end of the political and economic systems in which the palaces seem to exercised a very tight control over them.

As far as the political system is concerned, we have total collapse of the administration structure that has flourished since the Shaft Graves era. This can be confirmed by two main things: a) by the disappearance of great tholos tombs and other monumental constructions, and b) by the disappearance of the Linear B script. During the LH IIIA and B periods (ca. 1400-1200 BC), the two most commonly found types of tomb are the tholos and the chamber; and in both the mode of disposal used was that of multiple burials. The tholos tomb was much superior to the chamber tomb and therefore usually housed the dead of royal or aristocratic families. However, during the LH IIIC period (ca. 1200-1050 BC), burials in those tombs are extremely rare. This can imply that the people who used to use this type of tombs either changed their burial customs or simply lost the means to build such monuments. It seems reasonable to suppose on this evidence that the age of the monumental tomb is over and with it the age of monumental construction in general. However, we have some cases where tholoi are used during the LH IIIC period, such as the tholos at Tragana in Messenia and the tholoi at Pteleon in South Thessaly (Desborough 1964).

It is well known that the Linear B script was used by the Mycenaeans mainly for administrative and economic reasons and more specifically for confirming ownership and keeping records. The whole administrative system of the palaces was therefore heavily dependent on the existence of that script. However, with the destruction of the palaces, this need stops to exist, although we know that in Crete the script continued to exist long after the end of the palatial period at Knossos.

So what was the nature of the political system in the years after the destruction of the palaces? According to Drews (1983), when the Mycenaean states collapsed, what survived the ruin were the various settlements (poleis) that had made up these states. Leadership in each polis must have fell to the several local chiefs (basileis). The basileis as we have seen, were part of the Mycenaean administration and hierarchically seems to have stood on a level with the po-ro-ko-re-te, the deputy of the district governor. It is therefore, again according to Drews, very likely that when the palaces were destroyed, small groups of basileis collaborated to lead communities centred on various poleis. At this point we must notice that Drew’s hypothesis is not based on archaeological evidence, therefore we should be very careful with it.

As far as the economic structure is concerned, we are not sure of many things. Of course agriculture continued to play a very important role in the economic life of the population, although we lack any information about the way the system worked. A very interesting thing is the fact that trade continued to be very important during the LH IIIC period. The contacts with the different regions of the Aegean and East Mediterranean are still quite intense, though apparently less systematic than they were in previous periods. The same applies for the West Mediterranean and Italy in particular. Here we have continuity of direct contact but only in some of the traditional areas such as the Gulf of Taranto, Basilicata, Calabria and the Aeolian islands (Bietti Sestieri 1988). In addition, we have development of local production of Mycenaean pottery in Apulia, Calabria and Basilicata. Harding (1984: 255) argued that the presence of Mycenaeans during that period either has to do with refugees or free entrepreneurs (or even pirates), a response to the new, less centralised organisation of the Mycenaean economy after the destruction of the palaces. Evidence for the continuity of trade during the LH IIIC period also comes from the cemetery of Perati in eastern Attica. Within the contents of the tombs we find imported material from Syria, Cyprus and Egypt (Iakovides 1969).

As we have seen, the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces during the late 13th and early 12th century, led to the collapse of the political-administrative and economic structures. However, we should not consider this event as the cause of the complete disappearance of the Mycenaean way of life. We could rather say that we have a transformation of these structures. It is obvious that we can no longer speak for strict hierarchies and well organised administration. But we have the emergence of new types of rulers, possibly something closer to local chiefs or warlords. Trade continues to exist although is less dense and systematic. Artefacts and ideas continue to travel as far as Syria and Italy. As Desborough put it (1964) ‘ the Mycenaean system of rule and administration was eradicated and with it most of the material manifestations of the civilization,...This does not mean that much may not have survived...even in the realms of thought’.

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Taylor, W., (1994), The Mycenaeans (revised and enlarged edition), Thames and Hudson.

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