Lesson 25: Narrative

The Linear B Tablets and Mycenaean Social, Political, and Economic Organization

  1. The Nature and Use of the Linear B Script
  2. The Date of the Known Linear B Texts
  3. The Acceptance of the Decipherment of Linear B as Greek
  4. The Mycenaean Social Order
  5. Conclusions

The Nature and Use of the Linear B Script

Linear B is a principally syllabic script written with some 89 different signs which have been deciphered as representing both bare vowels (i.e. a, e, i, o, u) and open syllables of the form consonant+vowel (e.g. pa, pe, pi, po, pu). Closed syllables consisting either of vowel+consonant or of consonant+vowel+consonant do not occur. In addition to the syllabic signs there are over one hundred ideograms (signs representing physical objects, numerals, measures of weight and of liquid and dry volumes, and a variety of commodities). Forty-five of the Linear B syllabic signs have close equivalents in Linear A, while a further ten have more doubtful parallels in the older script. There is therefore general scholarly consensus that Linear B was derived from Linear A for the purpose of writing a different, non-Minoan language which happens to have been deciphered as an early form of Greek. It is still unknown where, when, why, by whom, and under what circumstances the Linear B writing system was devised for this purpose although several suggestions have been proposed as solutions to each of these five fundamental questions.

Linear B, in the form of sign groups which form words as opposed to isolated signs with a variety of possible significances, occurs in only two forms of text. The first and most important consists of tablets of unbaked clay which have survived due to the fact that they were burned and hence crudely fired, usually in fires which destroyed the buildings in which they have been found. These tablets are of two principal types: long and thin “palm-leaf” tablets and rectangular “page” tablets. The second form of Linear B text consists of painted inscriptions on ceramic vessels, for the most part large, coarse stirrup jars on whose shoulders between one and three words were painted before the vessels were intentionally fired.

Tablets have been found only at palatial centers, whether on the Mycenaean Mainland (Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, Thebes) or at non-Mainland sites controlled by Mycenaean rulers (Knossos, Chania). In the case of Pylos, Thebes, and Knossos, tablets were found in palace archives, although at both Pylos and Knossos tablets have also been found in a variety of contexts within the palaces other than special archive rooms. At Mycenae, tablets have been found in burnt debris within the citadel, arguably fallen down the hillside from the palace on top of the hill, but they have also been found in LH IIIB1 contexts in houses outside the citadel, houses which may conceivably have belonged to merchants rather than to the king himself. At Tiryns, tablets have been found only in debris on the slopes of the citadel; their original place of storage is uncertain. The only major archives to have been discovered thus far where the material preserved is sufficiently abundant for us to be able to attempt reconstruction of major portions of the administrative system of a Mycenaean kingdom are those at Pylos (1107 tablets written by 32 different scribes) and Knossos (3369 tablets written by 100 distinct scribes).

In contrast, painted Linear B inscriptions have been found at both palatial and non-palatial sites on both the Mainland and Crete: six or more examples at the sites of Thebes, Mycenae, Tiryns, and Chania, and between one and five examples at the sites of Orchomenos, Kreusis (in southwestern Boeotia), Eleusis, Knossos, and the Mameloukas Cave (in western Crete). A good number of these jars were made, and hence painted, in West Crete in the Chania area during the LM IIIB period. They indicate not only that Greek was spoken during this period in western Crete but also that Chania was the capital of a Mycenaean kingdom at this time. The concentration of inscribed stirrup jars in Boeotia, the Argolid, and Crete is notable: of some 140 known jars of this type, none have so far been found in the well-explored region of Messenia (whose capital at Pylos has been extensively excavated) nor have any been found in the Cyclades or in any area of the Peloponnese outside of the Argolid.


The Date of the Known Linear B Texts

The tablets from the citadel of Mycenae and from Thebes, as well as all but five of the over 1100 tablets from Pylos, are firmly dated to the end of the 13th century B.C. by the burnt destruction contexts in which they were found. The tablets from Tiryns probably date from the same period, although they were found in wash deposits containing later material. The tablets from the houses outside the walls at Mycenae are earlier in date, although probably no more than fifty years earlier. How much earlier than ca. 1250 B.C. a group of five odd tablets from Pylos may be, three of which resemble Knossian Linear B more closely in paleographic terms than they do Mainland Greek Linear B, is uncertain. For many years, the tablets at Knossos were dated within the period ca. 1425-1385 B.C. [end of LM II or ca. 1425 B.C. (Evans); early LM IIIA2 or ca. 1385 B.C. (Popham)], but there is a growing consensus that they are to be attributed not to the destruction horizon of ca. 1385 B.C. at Knossos but rather to a subsequent destruction of the site sometime in the mid- to later 13th century, that is, to a period broadly contemporary with the Linear B tablets from the Mainland. The most recent and perhaps most decisive piece of evidence in favor of a later dating in the 13th century B.C. for the Knossos tablets is the discovery of a pair of tablets at Chania in a LM IIIB1 destruction context, one of which appears to have been written by a scribal hand already known at Knossos. All of the inscribed stirrup jars which come from well-dated contexts are datable to the 13th century B.C. (LM/LH IIIIB) and these include an example from Knossos itself. It is now beginning to appear that Linear B, both on the Mainland and in Crete, is a phenomenon strictly of the 13th century B.C. It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to argue that Linear B was created much if at all earlier than ca. 1350-1300 B.C. Theories that connect the beginning of Linear B with the appearance of Mycenaeans at Knossos ca. 1450-1425 B.C. or with the presence of Minoan artisans on the Greek Mainland at an even earlier period ca. 1600-1500 B.C. (the era of the Shaft Grave burials at Mycenae) may have to be abandoned as a result of the redating of the Knossos tablets.


The Acceptance of the Decipherment of Linear B as Greek

Most Aegean prehistorians have accepted Ventris’ decipherment of 1952, but there are some notable exceptions (e.g. Sinclair Hood). The grounds for continuing to reject the decipherment may be summarized as follows:

(1) The “spelling rules” of Linear B are so complex that a given word as “spelled” in Linear B may be interpreted (that is, transliterated and spelled out in the modern Western European alphabet) in a large number of different ways. It is therefore argued that the interpretation of any one word is a largely subjective process. [For the Linear B spelling rules, see M. Ventris and J. Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek [2nd edition] (Cambridge 1973) 42-48].

(2) Even a “deciphered” Linear B text is often largely or completely unintelligible because the Mycenaean Greek words have no cognates in later Greek. The decipherers argue that such Mycenaean words dropped out of the Greek language at some point between ca. 1200 and ca. 650 B.C. In a number of instances where such later Greek cognates do exist, the Mycenaean Greek predecessor clearly means something rather different, an indication, or so the skeptics argue, that the language of Linear B is being forced to become Greek. In a number of cases where words are unintelligible, their lack of “meaning” is explained by the decipherers as being due to the fact that the word in question is a proper name, either of a person or of a place. The skeptics argue that this is a further instance of the decipherers’ refusal to admit that Linear B is in fact not Greek at all.

The decipherers point out that the clumsy spelling rules are a result of the fact that Linear B is derived directly from Linear A, a writing system designed for a non-Greek language. Features such as consonant clusters, terminal -s, and distinctions between r and l , g and k, and p and b, all of which occur in Greek, do not appear to have been characteristic of this Minoan language, and hence cause bizarre problems in the “spelling” of Greek words in the modified form of Linear A (i.e. Linear B) which was used to write Greek.


The Mycenaean Social Order

The following terms in Linear B refer to Mycenaean officials and form the basis of our reconstruction of the Mycenaean social order:

WA-NA-KA [wanax]

Mentioned at both Pylos and Knossos, only one wanax appears to have existed at either place. The use of wanax as an archaic form of the normal word basileus for “king” in the Iliad and the evident importance of this personage at Pylos justify the English translation of “king” for WA-NA-KA. In some cases, wanax appears to be used in the tablets as a divine title, but this does not necessarily imply that the wanax was some sort of priest-king. Some tradesmen – a potter, a fuller, and an armorer(?) – are referred to by the adjectival form wanakteros and were therefore presumably in some sense in the “royal” service. Some of the painted stirrup jars from Thebes, Eleusis, Tiryns, and Chania are labelled in paint with the same adjective, wanaktero. These jars, which are among those almost certainly made in western Crete, presumably contained produce (wine or oil) from “royal” vineyards or olive orchards. They are particularly significant as indicating that there was a LM IIIB wanax of western Crete, presumably one resident at the important site of Chania (Classical Kydonia, Linear B KU-DO-NI-JA). The wanax of Pylos was a major landholder. It has been suggested, on the basis of unfortunately inconclusive evidence, that his name was Enkhelyawon (or something similar). There is no archaeological evidence for the Iliad‘s King Nestor, nor is Enkhelyawon recognizable among any of the Messenian heroes of Classical saga and legend.

RA-WA-KE-TA [lawagetas]

Mentioned at both Pylos and Knossos, again only one such figure appears to have existed at either place. At Pylos, he occurs second after the wanax in a list of major landholders. As in the case of the wanax, certain personnel are qualified with an adjectival form derived from lawagetas, lawagesios. Etymology suggests that lawagetas literally means “leader of the people” (laós + ágein). Parallels for such a figure in Teutonic societies suggest that he may have been a war leader. However, there is no solid evidence from Mycenaean archaeology that he fulfilled such a function – he may have been a crown-prince or something else altogether.

TE-RE-TA [telestas]

Such personnel are known at both Pylos and Knossos. The title telestas occurs almost exclusively in texts dealing with land tenure. In the list of landholders from Pylos referred to above, three telestai appear who together hold as much land as the wanax and who, on average, hold as much as the lawagetas. Telestai are numerous – we know of fourteen at PA-KI-JA-NE in the Pylian kingdom and of at least forty-five at Aptara in western Crete. It is far from clear exactly what the function of a telestas was, but there are two major theories:

(1) Telestai were religious officials of some kind. PA-KI-JA-NE was a cult center in the Pylian kingdom and the later Greek word tele has religious connotations.

(2) Telestai were fief-holders, persons who held land from someone (possibly the king) in return for services which they rendered to him. The Greek word tele often has the meaning of “taxes” or “dues”.

KA-MA-E-U [kamaeus(?)]

Although this title occurs at both Pylos and Knossos, at Knossos it may be no more than a personal name. The term appears to describe a form of landholder whose holding (kama-land) differs in some as yet undetermined way from the holdings of the wanax, the lawagetas, and the telestai which are called temenoi. The men who bear the title of kamaeus appear to be humble and include a baker(?) and a “slave of the god”.

E-QE-TA [heqetas]

Heqetai are known from both Pylos and Knossos. In Classical Greek, the equivalent word (hepetas) means nothing more than “companion, follower”. But Palmer and others have compared Mycenaean heqetas to Homeric hetairos and translate the term in the sense of “companion to the king” (compare Alexander the Great’s hetairoi/companions, a select group of royal comrades-in-arms, as well as the Latin word comes (also meaning “companion”) which became a military title in the later Roman Empire and went on to give rise to such aristocratic titles as the French comte and the English count). In the Linear B tablets, heqetai are distinguished by the use of the patronymic following their names, an otherwise rare way of identifying an individual in the tablets. Heqetai appear in contexts dealing with bodies of troops (the “watchers of the sea” in the O-KA series of tablets from Pylos) where they seem to function as staff officers or possibly as liaison officers to the king or central military authority. They are also occasionally mentioned in contexts relating to land tenure. They may have slaves and are distinguished by a particular kind of garment (probably a cloak of some kind) and by a particular type of chariot wheel. The implication that heqetai possessed chariots has led most scholars to view them as a warrior caste of some kind, closely attached to the wanax. The temptation to connect the heqetai as a class with the occupants of the LM II-IIIA1 “Warrior Graves” at Knossos has therefore been considerable, although the Linear B tablets in which heqetai are mentioned probably all postdate the era of the Knossian “Warrior Graves” by at least a century and perhaps by as much as 175 years. A comparable chariot-borne warrior class known in Akkadian as the mariyannu existed somewhat earlier in some Near Eastern societies (e.g. among the Hurrians).

QA-SI-RE-U [quasileus = basileus]

Personnel bearing this title are known from Pylos, Knossos, and Thebes. The connection of Linear B QA-SI-RE-U with Homeric basileus meaning “king” is undeniable, but it is equally clear that the Mycenaean quasileus was nothing more than some kind of chief or leader of a small group, in one case a group of bronzesmiths. In some contexts the quasileus may have been in charge of small, outlying districts, in which case the metamorphosis from Mycenaean “village headman” to Homeric “chieftain/king” would be explicable in view of the chaotic conditions which followed the collapse first of Mycenaean palatial civilization and then of Mycenaean civilization in a broader sense during the period ca. 1200-1000 B.C. An extreme view held by Palmer insists that QA-SI-RE-U and words derived from it never occur in Mycenaean contexts not involving craftsmen in some way and therefore that quasileus signifies nothing more than a man in charge of an industrial or manufacturing unit.

KE-RO-SI-JA [geronsia]

Attested only at Pylos, this word in the single instance where it occurs is associated with a man who is known from another context to have been a quasileus. It is thus possible that the geronsia is a council of elders presided over by a quasileus or chief, presumably a local administrative council rather than a body with responsibilities for any wider area, such as a province or the kingdom as a whole. The Classical Greek equivalent attested in many different Greek city-states is the gerousia or council of elders (gerontes).

DA-MO [damos]

In the Knossos and Pylos tablets, the damos is an entity which can allocate landholdings. It is perhaps best translated as “village”, an English term which can refer either to the people of the community or to the land held by that community. The Linear B evidence strongly suggests that the damos is nothing more than a group of individual landholders, that is, a collective landholding body. There is nothing to suggest that the term also had political significance, as it came to do in the Archaic and Classical periods with reference to the “common people” (demos) as opposed to a hereditary nobility (aristoi; gennetai).

MO-RO-QA [moiroqquas]

Attested at both Pylos and Knossos, this word is the title of a local official whose importance is indicated by the fact that a man by the name of Klymenos was at the same time MO-RO-QA, the commander of a military unit, and a KO-RE-TE. Chadwick concludes that MO-RO-QA was a rank rather than an office, but this need not have been so. There may be some connection between this title and the Classical Greek word moira meaning “share, portion”, the MO-RO-QA being a “shareholder” of some sort.

KO-RE-TE, PO-RO-KO-RE-TE [koreter, prokoreter]

Such officials are known at both Knossos and Pylos. The titles bear a suspiciously close resemblance to the Latin terms curator and procurator (“guardian” and “manager, imperial officer/governor” respectively). The Linear B evidence suggests that the koreter was a local official in charge of one of the sixteen major administrative units within the Pylian kingdom, and the prokoreter was evidently his deputy.

DO-E-RO, DO-E-RA [doeros, doera]

Such personnel are common at both Pylos and Knossos. Although the later Greek cognates doulos and doule mean “male slave” and “female slave” respectively, the Mycenaean Greek forms may have had a significance closer to “servant, bondsman/bondswoman”. Some DO-E-RO are clearly the property of living individuals, while others are described as being “of (= belonging to) a god/goddess”. There is some evidence that the children of parents of whom only one was a slave were also slaves, a situation unlike that prevailing in Classical Greece. Slaves of a divinity are the most common form at Pylos, but it is possible that a “god’s slave” had a status quite different from that of other slaves, since s/he could have leases on land and appears to have lived in much the same fashion as ordinary free persons.



If the decipherment of Linear B as an early form of Greek is accepted, we may conclude that the Mycenaean social order features at least some, and possibly all, of the following:

1. A king, the wanax.

2. A warrior caste, the heqetai.

3. A class of slaves or serfs, the doeroi and doerai.

4. Priests and priestesses of particular divinities (see following handout on Mycenaean religion), as well as “slaves” of divinities.

5. A series of local administrative officials (koreter, prokoreter, possibly also quasileus) and possibly local councils (geronsia).

A notable feature of the Linear B texts is the complex system of land tenure which evidently existed in the Pylian kingdom. This system has been argued by some to be at least partially feudal in nature (i.e. to feature lands held from the king in return for services rendered to him), but others have denied the existence of any evidence for feudalism. Hutchinson has compared the Mycenaean economic system to that typical of Medieval monasteries.

To judge from the known tablets, there appear to have been a number of distinct kingdoms within Mycenaean Greece, all of which seem to have been independent. In the Pylos texts, Pylos (or PU-RO in Linear B) is clearly the capital of a Messenian kingdom and there is no mention of any superior monarch or paramount king whom the wanax of Pylos acknowledged as an overlord, in contrast with the existence of such a figure in the person of Agamemnon of Mycenae in the Iliad. Within the Argolid, we now have possible evidence for the existence of independent Linear B archives at Mycenae and Tiryns, and it is thus possible that these two sites may have been the capitals of independent kingdoms. All other sites where Linear B tablets have been found are normally considered to have been the capitals of independent kingdoms (Pylos, Knossos, Thebes).


Comments are closed.