Political unity in the LBA?

The ever-useful academia.edu (which now keeps asking me if I am interested in Roman Archaeology) brought to my attention an article by Jorrit Kelder entitled “Ahhiyawa and the World of the Great Kings: A Re-evaluation of Mycenaean Political Structures” (Talanta XLIV [2012]). The author argues in this paper that the Mycenaean world was unified into a single state ruled by a single king (the wanax) at Mycenae, while the other Mycenaean palaces were subsidiary administrative centers, each ruled by a local king (the lawagetas).

aegean_smThe spur for this argument, which runs totally against the grain of all Mycenaean scholarship, is the fact that in Hittite diplomatic texts, the region called Ahhiyawa (now located by Hittite scholars in the Aegean) is ruled by a “great king.” It is indeed interesting that our usual understanding of the Mycenaean world, i.e. that it is a patchwork of independent peer polities, is so different from the picture we get from the Hittite texts, and Kelder is right to identify this as an important question that needs resolution. His solution, however, is to accept the historical reality of the Hittite texts and then see whether he can fit the Mycenaean evidence into this picture.

In some ways, of course, that’s what we all do. We work from the evidence we know best to solve problems that they impinge upon, or we temporarily ignore a complex reality so that we can focus our attention on a particular problem (what Giddens calls “methodological bracketing”). The difference is the way that we go about treating the material we don’t know well but which is important to our argument.

In this case, the problem is the way that Kelder treats the Mycenaean material. For instance, we read that

The point that various large-scale infrastructural works (most notably the drainage of the Kopais basin in Boeotia, and the evidence for a well-developed network of roads in, especially, the Argolid) are difficult to reconcile with the modest amounts of resources and manpower that, according to the Linear B texts, would have been available to the individual palaces is usually ignored…

This is all we are told (no citations are given). It is not an unimportant statement, for together with the cultural and administrative homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, it allows that author to conclude in the following paragraph that “The argument for a politically fragmented political landscape during the Late Bronze Age thus seems to be based on assumptions, rather than facts.” It thus shoulders a great deal of argumentative weight.

Passing aside the administrative homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, which seems to me to ignore the context in which writing took place in LBA Greece (on which, see Kevin Pluta’s dissertation), this argument doesn’t hold. The author assumes that what is written on Linear B texts is congruent with (“according to the Linear B texts”), or at least indicative of, the total resources commanded by individual palaces. This is to misunderstand the nature of the Linear B texts and the processes whereby we have received them. The amount of labor recorded on the Linear B texts is indeed not very large, but it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the palace could not command large quantities of labor. As many scholars have pointed out, the Linear B texts heavily bias regular transactions, probably because those texts were less often recycled and reused. Thus we are much more likely to have evidence of annual or monthly transactions than ad hoc transactions. A good example of this is the fact that we have much more evidence for dependent groups of women and children at Pylos who are allocated monthly supplies of foodstuffs for their support than evidence for other short-term allocations of foodstuffs. Second, there is some good evidence that the palaces used multiple systems to recruit labor, including the use of intermediaries who were allocated large quantities of staples to recruit various laborers for palatial projects. So what we have in the Linear B texts are fragments of information about the labor that was certainly available to the palace, but in no way can we use this information to determine that the palaces didn’t have enough labor to, say, drain the Kopais or build a road 100 miles long, especially when neither has been adequately quantified.

Kelder makes the important point, and it is a correct one, I think, that it is a mistake to equate administrative borders with political borders (p. 4, bottom). On the other hand, he misrepresents what we know about the two main officials of the Mycenaean state, the wanax and the lawagetas. Although the contexts in which they are appear are similar, it is not true to say that (p. 5, top):

The numerous (and as far as I can see, unconvincing) attempts to make a clear distinction between the two officials, other than the size of their respective temenoi [sic; the plural of temenos is not temenoi, but temene] (at Pylos, the wanax’s is thrice the size of that of the lawagetas), clearly illustrate that there is no real consensus on the exact position and status of either of them.

Actually, there is a clear distinction between the two, which is demonstrated by a number of the secondary sources cited in this article. The adjective formed from wanax is wanakteros, which makes use of a Greek suffix (-teros) that indicates binary opposition (like Greek ἕτερος, “the other [of two]”), while the adjective formed from lawagetas is lawagesios, a regular adjectival ending. Thus it seems possible that the wanax is an important structural concept in Mycenaean Greek (at least among the administrators). There are other differences. The wanax appoints the damokoros, a regional official who administers one of the two main provinces of Pylos. He is thus directly involved in regional administration.

This much is consistent with Kelder’s argument that the wanax is the real king, whereas the lawagetas is a sub-king. But where is the evidence that the lawagetas is a “ruler-like figure”? This is crucial because the presence of two “ruler-like figures” is what Kelder finds so problematic about traditional interpretations of the Mycenaean political order. The answer is that there is no such evidence. The lawagetas appears in a number of important contexts, as does the wanax, but there is no evidence that he is a ruler-like figure. Why couldn’t he be something like the grand vizier, for example? This possibility is never entertained.

pylos-dejongAlso strange is Kelder’s reference to “two throne-rooms.” Here he elides the important difference between a throne-room and a megaron. The former is an interpretation of the function of a space; the latter is a designation of a particular architectural configuration. It is true that the rooms that we consider throne-rooms are megara, but it hardly follows that all megara are throne-rooms. In fact at Pylos, the lawagetas is not thought to hold court in the smaller megaron (room 23), but in Halls 64-65. It’s not certain what the other megara at Mycenaean palaces are for, but nowhere are the possibilities (except the one favored by the author) entertained.

Kelder’s put his finger on an important question, but although he concludes his article with the statement that “the growing body of circumstantial evidence for a unified Mycenaean state now seems overwhelming,” I am afraid that we are no closer to solving this thorny problem. That will require close, sustained engagement with the Hittite and the Mycenaean evidence.


2 thoughts on “Political unity in the LBA?

  1. Jorrit Kelder

    Dear Dimitris
    Thanks for this very swift reaction to my paper (incidentally it concerns a proof, so the ‘temenos’ plural –>temene wil be corrected). If I may, I would like to point to my 2008 article (referred to in the text) which deals with the wanax-lawagetas problem. The point that the wanax appoints someone at Pylos to me seems entirely consistent with the concept of a peripatetic wanax -as advocated in this and the 2008 article, but I am very much open to different suggestions (I am very sorry if I given the impression that I am not). My main point, I would have thought, that the evidence currently can be used to argue either way seems quite reasonable. As does the point that the only more or less ‘straightforward’ evidence (in the sense that they directly convey a LBA perception of the political status of (part of) the Grreek world, and do not a priori, or to a lesser extent than the archaeological data seem to require further interpretations), the Hittite sources, seems to indicate a sense of unity in the Mycenaean world.
    I was not aware of your blog but a friend kindly forwarded this to me, and I will try to read your posts in the future. Again, many thanks for your swift reaction and with all best wishes from Oxford,

    1. nakassis Post author

      Dear Jorrit, thanks for the comment! I agree that it is a problem that we have to face as a subdiscipline. I think it’s important to see how hard we can press these orthodoxies.. clearly I’m not as comfortable with some of it as you are but hopefully through debating back and forth it’ll be possible to move the discussion forward!


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