Minoan and Mycenaean elites: continuities and ruptures

Minoan and Mycenaean elites: continuities and ruptures

Before starting, we can already say that the history of the Minoan and Mycenaean elites is difficult to define with precision. Thus, wanting to define with exactitude a hierarchy, a social organization, the practices specific to a dominant group would be - from an intellectual point of view - very satisfactory but would certainly have the main fault of proposing a model which has only partially or even never existed.

Rare sources

There are several explanations for this. The sources available to us for studying the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations are relatively scarce. The sources written in the Minoan space do not allow a detailed analysis to be carried out, the linear A and the hieroglyphic inscriptions not yet being deciphered. For Mycenae, the situation is a little different. Since the fifties and the work of John Chadwick and Mikael Ventris, linear B has been accessible to us and allows a more precise study of the palatial system. Archaeological sources are also of great importance for the knowledge of the Minoans and Mycenaeans as we shall see. Another type of source, constituted by the Homeric epics, remains discussed by specialists. The question is how to use these stories and how much credit to give them. Anyway, here we have chosen to favor the sources written with the linear B tablets and archaeological sources through ceramics, funerary material, weaponry, art and of course archaeological remains. .

Of course, the study of the elites would not be completely done without taking into account the modes of domination, the way of exercising its power and the whole of the organization of society. Thus we will first see how the Minoan civilization was organized before the arrival of the Mycenaeans and what was its place in the Aegean world. We will wonder about the internal hierarchy around the palace then the relations with other civilizations, Egypt in particular. The Mycenaean occupation and the establishment of a new elite on the island will bring this first part to a close. Secondly, we will focus on the Mycenaean elites and try to identify their diversity. The palatial aristocracy and the local elite will first be studied separately before joining together in order to understand the relations between these two groups which in reality are linked. Finally, we will end by highlighting the different ways for an elite to distinguish itself both from the group of dominated and from its peers. For this, funeral practices, habitat and culture will be solicited. All this while asking whether there is a homogeneous ruling class or a diversity of elites who between rivalry and collaboration seek to control society. Finally, to better understand this vast ensemble, it will be necessary to put the two civilizations in perspective in order to distinguish the continuities and the ruptures that exist between them.

The Minoans

The history of the Minoan civilization is old and knows several phases until the Mycenaeans came, around 1450 BC, to settle in Crete. The Minoans are present on the island from the beginning of the third millennium. From 1900 to 1700 we witness what has been called the era of the first palaces or "protipalatial" then from 1700 to 1450 the so-called "neopalatial" period. The study of the Minoan elites is part of a long-term framework. The current situation vis-à-vis still unknown written sources makes the task complex. Thus, in the rare studies devoted to the Minoan elites and for lack of anything better, comparisons with the Mycenaean elite can provide some leads. The continuities and ruptures can give rise to some interpretations. Thus, from a few elements, we will try to discern the main features of Minoan society and then we will see its place in the Aegean world until the Mycenaean conquest which we will discuss in conclusion.

A complex society to define

Establishing an elite hierarchy for the Minoans is a near-impossible task. However, thanks to a comparative study based on archeology, art and relations with the Mycenaean world, we can identify some major characteristics. At first glance, Minoan society seems less hierarchical than Mycenaean society. Four great palaces stand out in particular: Knossos, Phaistos, Mallia and Zakro. However, unlike contemporary oriental palaces, the royal effigy is less represented. The Minoans seem to form a relatively homogeneous community with regard to the power of the Mycenaean wa-na-ka for example, which we will see later. A fresco of Knossos shows a crowd of people grouped together, forming one under the gaze of a staff bearer. Agnès Xenaki-Sakellariou notices that in Mycenae, no similar scene is attested. On the contrary, Mycenaean representations prefer to put the individual before the group.

Thus, the example of this fresco allows us to suppose that Minoan society is more collective. Regarding military activity, Minoan society seems less warlike compared to the Mycenaeans. Here too, the pictorial themes used are revealing, as well as their subsequent reuse by the Mycenaeans. Nature as a central subject among the Minoans becomes secondary among the Mycenaeans who associate it with more warlike scenes or use them as a motif. Likewise, many Minoan scenes depicting boxing fights must, according to Agnès Xenaki-Sakellariou, be seen as sporting scenes, rather than war scenes. Everything we have just mentioned is based on relatively rare documents which must not be interpreted in an abusive manner. In order to better understand the Minoan elite, it is now necessary to evoke a more global framework, by looking at the external relations which, at the same time, inform on the internal functioning.

A society open to the outside world

The Minoan civilization indeed seems open to the Aegean world, in particular to Egypt since we have a source dating from the reign of Thutmose III, pharaoh of the 18th dynasty and having reigned in the middle of the 15th century. Indeed, an Egyptian document mentions the "land of the Keftiou". Several specialists agree on the fact that these “Keftiou” are Cretans. The presence of an embassy is also mentioned. This allows us to specify certain characteristics of the Minoan civilization and its organization. Indeed, if the Minoans were able to go as far as Egypt and be received by one of the most powerful sovereigns of the Mediterranean basin, it is because they had the means and that their internal society was structured. From the MRI, the Minoan economy relies mainly on agriculture. But a craft industry and a metallurgical activity involving imports seem to develop.

Thus, we can assume that an elite associated with the palace could hold both an administrative authority - allowing external contacts - an economic power - which controls part of the production - and a religious power. Around the palace, an agricultural population seems to organize and work in part for the palace. However, too much is ignored about the non-palatial elites to be able to propose a solid hierarchy. For a long time, we insisted on a Minoan thalassocracy, crisscrossing the seas to establish trading posts, protectorates or even colonies. However, this maritime power is today qualified by various elements. External relations therefore make it possible to deduce that the Minoan civilization knows a certain organization with powerful elites. But from the middle of the 15th century, the intervention of the Mycenaeans in Crete will come to modify this whole organization.

The arrival of the Mycenaeans in Crete (1450 BC)

Long debated, the establishment of the Mycenaeans in Crete is today fixed at around 1450 BC. We then witness a change of power as shown by Veit Strürmer, who sees a Minoan culture oppose a hierarchical Mycenaean power. Jan Driessen has shown how the Mycenaean elites gradually established themselves in Crete without completely erasing the Minoan culture but, on the contrary, by appropriating it and integrating part of the old elite. Several categories of elites are then identified from 1450. The nomenclature elite includes characters both designated by name and title. The military elite brings together individuals associated with military equipment or possessing command functions. The administrative elite is more complex to define, and seems to serve as a link between the palace and the rural communities. All these categories are not mutually exclusive and the same character can combine various functions. In any case, the implantation of the Mycenaeans in Crete initially seems to have been carried out by force.

In Knossos, the Sc Kn series shows how the palace taken by the Mycenaeans seems to allocate certain people a chariot and a horse in order to control the territory. These beneficiaries seem to be customary figures of military activity as evidenced by the Vc series. Also, granting only one horse assumes that the person already had another animal. The presence of both warlike and rich funerary material attests to the presence of an economic and warrior elite. Some historians mention a new series of destruction around 1370 BC. AD It could be a Minoan burst. Be that as it may, the situation tends to calm down thereafter. In Crete, a new organization is being set up resulting from the meeting between a prosperous Minoan civilization and little warrior in the face of the Mycenaean invader much more warlike and having a better known hierarchy as we will see in this second part.

The Mycenaean period

The number of Mycenaean sites gradually increased from 1700 to 1300. The Mycenaeans also maintain relationships with the outside world. We have long believed in a cultural community or koiné animated by a predominant center, possibly Mycenae. But at least four large palaces (Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, Thebes) turn out to be powerful without however having an authority which would exceed a regional framework. In this context, Mycenaean society developed a unique hierarchy, torn between an elite linked to the palace and a more rural world, whose relations with the palatial center were complex. We will see what this elite is organized around the palace and then what are the characteristics of the rural group which tends to act as a counterweight. Finally, we will see how these two entities communicate and organize themselves.

The palatial system

The social hierarchy of Mycenaean civilization is only known to us through the linear B tablets, the dating of which is partly established - for a large part of them - at the time of the fall of the palaces. It is therefore partial information in time and space that is offered to us. However, we can draw some major features. As Anna Morpugo points out, nearly 117 terms are used to designate professions, functions or dignities in Mycenaean space. The character of wa-na-ka recurs on several occurrences (32). This term seems to refer to a human ruler with the authority to appoint or transfer officials. He is never referred to by name. At the head of the palace, we can assume that he is the most important figure in Mycenaean society. He owns the largest estate, temeno, craftsmen are at his service and an adjective, wa-na-ka-te-ro, is used to distinguish what is "royal" from what is not. The heredity of office and the attributes of authority are discussed. After him, the ra-wa-ke-ta, has the second largest estate and dependents, which suggests that he is the second character in the palace. Its military function is debated and seems to derive from a later interpretation based on the Homeric epic.

In Pylos and Cnossos, a specific qualifier is attributed to it, ra-wa-ke-si-jo. The case of “companions” or e-qe-ta is complex. Listed in Pylos and Cnossos, these dignitaries are entrusted by the palace with various missions, ranging from controlling troops to leading a group of workers. On the other hand, they have a certain autonomy by drawing income linked to their function. Designated by name, their office could be hereditary. The o-ka tablets partially distort the perception of the exact role of e-qe-ta by emphasizing their military aspect. Within this palatial system, the case of te-re-ta is difficult to define. The term itself evokes the idea of ​​a charge (telos). Some believe that these would be figures performing religious functions, others tend to say that the te-re-ta received land from the palace in exchange for services rendered. Finally, the tablet Py Jn 829, mentions other officials who owe quantities of bronze to the palace. However, we must not forget that the palatial system coexists with a parallel organization in the community, as we will see now.

Around the palace

The palatial system offers a fairly marked hierarchical organization that is sometimes called palatial nomenclature. But next to the palace, there is a local administrative entity with an agricultural vocation which owns land, manages civil servants and exploits slaves. This is the da-mo. However, this da-mo would not be seen as completely independent and competing with the palace. There are various reasons for this. At the head of these provinces is the character of da-mo-ko-ro. This locally important figure is actually named by the wa-na-ka himself. This provincial unit, however, has a certain autonomy which does not entirely link it to the palace. In fact, the provinces are divided into districts managed by prefects and sub-prefects, the ko-re-te and po-ro-ko-re-te, who refer to the da-mo-ko-ro without going through it. the wa-na-ka. The internal organization of da-mo allows it a certain dependence. Indeed, two types of properties exist. In one case, the land is used by individuals. In the other case, slaves, herdsmen or pigmen work on other plots.

Thus, the royalties paid by the beneficiaries, as well as the internal production, assure the da-mo a certain economic and administrative autonomy. Another character is found outside the palace, the qa-si-re-u. It has often been compared to the Homeric basileus which has the main defect of overestimating its power. The condition of the qa-si-re-u actually seems variable. Sometimes it is tempting to equate them with local leaders of blacksmith groups. Others think that the qa-si-re-u could be a provincial dignitary or a simple official. The qa-si-re-we can own domains but at the same time render services to the wa-na-ka. Their name is frequently associated with provincial towns. Pierre Carlier notes that the qa-si-re-u could be a provincial notable charged by the palace with certain requisitions without however being a full palatial official. Three aspects can explain their survival during the decline of the palatial system: their control of metallurgy in different sectors; their frequent association with other locally influential members such as priests; finally their privileged place within a vast network of relations independent of the palace. However, the palace and the province seem to be linked within a complex system maintained by various agents that we will attempt to see now.


Several palatial agents, officials, dignitaries, were able to play the role of intermediaries between the different parts of the Mycenaean organization. Studies of a possible “scribe caste” reveal various information. A priori, such a group as such did not exist. Paleographic analyzes have shown that the making of the tablets could have been carried out by children or the elderly. In reality, those who are designated by the term "scribes" could be literate people, occasionally employed by the palace in order to draw up and write up inventories. This therefore assumes that these same people had a different activity and therefore any contact with the province and the districts. In this, we can see in it a kind of intermediary informed about activities outside the palace. Besides that, the taxation makes it possible to glimpse the relations between the palace and the local administration and to distinguish some agents.

In this, the role of those who have perhaps been too wrongly called “collectors” seems to provide some additional information. As Louis Godart suggests, the role of intermediaries between the palace and the villages, the centralizing power and the local economies, was undoubtedly fulfilled by these characters whose traces we perceive through some clay seals they have leash. These characters were undoubtedly charged by the administration to see that the orders of the palace were carried out. Their relationship with the term a-ko-ra remains ambiguous. They are not officials like the da-mo-ko-ro, for example, but rather people close enough to the palace to be entrusted with the management of an important part of the kingdom's economy while having access to reservations. In fact their wealth seems important. These characters form in a way the link between the palace and the employees of the State (craftsmen, workers, farmers ...). In any case, this group of dominants is made up of a diverse elite who use various means to find their place, as we will see in this last part.

Types of distinctions

As we have just seen, the Minoan civilization and more particularly the Mycenaean civilization are characterized by the diversity of the elites who rub shoulders there. In this context, what appears to be a sense of competition emerges that pushes the elites to distinguish themselves both from the rest of society, but above all from their peers. From there, the modes of expression take various forms and on multiple supports. Here, we have chosen to retain the funeral practices and the material that we found in the graves. The habitat, which defines a landscape and shows its power. Finally, culture in the broad sense through art and representations. This will allow both to highlight the modes of distinctions but also the characteristics of these elites.

Funeral practices

Funeral practices allow elites to show their power through their ability to both bring people together and invest in prestigious funeral materials. The Mycenaean chambered tombs built in the shape of tholos - the tholoi - have long been exclusively assimilated to royal tombs. Today, this statement needs to be qualified. Be that as it may, the construction of such buildings (150 in the Aegean world) involves work which certainly required a significant investment in labor, materials and time. In other words, only an important figure or a wealthy community could afford such a project. However, some “single” chamber tombs may contain such prestigious burial material as in a tholoi. This is the case, for example, with tomb n ° 12 of Dendra, known as “with the breastplate”. Among the funerary material found we find among others, a bronze dagger, fragments of ivory and gold thread, a silver bar and of course a bronze breastplate. This burial tells us both about the importance of the character and the warrior character of the latter. Not far from tomb n ° 12, the so-called “king's” pit I found in a tholoi contains similar material (silver goblet, sword, javelin, seal).

These two tombs dating from the HRIIIA1 contain rich material, a sign that the two figures had a high social status. Besides this example, funeral practices are a good socio-political marker. The presence of ivory, gold, jade is sought after by the elites. The examples of the treasury of Atreus or the tomb of Clytemnestra (HRIIIB) show that some tholoi are inserted near contemporary habitats. Pascal Darcque shows that these constructions were able to allow dominant groups to demonstrate their power. The example of the tholoi should not erase all the other modes of burial, which in their own way, are each time an opportunity for the elite to show their prestige.

Habitat: building its power

The habitat is also one of these visible manifestations of the power of the elites. Pascal Darcque in fact distinguishes three main types which coexisted in the Mycenaean world until the fall of the palaces. In the first place, the palace is distinguished by its dimensions clearly greater than all the other constructions. All at the same time makes the building different from other buildings. Its construction method is clearly more elaborate, the ornamentation of the walls and floors is more sophisticated and finally, the palace is differentiated by the presence of a very stereotypical central core. This type of building is found in Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos and to a good extent in Thebes. This palatial residence makes its occupant a leading character who, by being identified with the palace, appropriates its characteristics which make it unique. The big question is whether the palace is automatically inhabited by the wa-na-ka? To this some think that there are palaces without wa-na-ka and wa-na-ka without palaces.

Others, on the contrary, make the palace the home of the sovereign by assuming the presence of a throne in the center of the megaron and linking it to the information delivered by linear B making the wa-na-ka an extraordinary character. Anyway, the palace is unique compared to the other more modest constructions, the houses, most of the time devoid of coverings. Between these two types of construction, intermediate buildings dot the landscape and use construction methods similar to those used for the palace without however offering such vast dimensions. These buildings, such as the House of Shields in Mycenae of the HRIIIB1 or the House of Kadmos in Thebes (HRIIIA2) sometimes provide a fairly rich material. Thus, the habitat seems closely linked to the prestige it conveys. The presence of similar material in the intermediate buildings and the tombs suggests that it could be the same people. Be that as it may, the palatial form seems inseparable from a political, economic and social system.

Art: collecting the world

To end this part, let us now look at the culture of the elites which is reflected mainly through the various iconographic representations on various supports (knives, ceramics, seal, frescoes). Here too, owning various objects helps to distinguish oneself from one's peers. The invoice of the object, the material used, the themes evoked or even the provenance are all criteria that increase the prestige of the owner. It is also the opportunity to combine various techniques and to show here how the Mycenaeans were inspired by Minoan techniques, in particular frescoes, without however attributing the same meanings to the signs. The themes approached in the Mycenaean repertoire highlight the warlike and fighting prowess. So if the boxing fight takes on a sporting aspect among the Minoans as we have seen, the Mycenaeans make them fighters armed with spears. In the tombs of Circle A of Mycenae (16th century), a silver goblet describes the siege of a city just like a fresco from the megaron of Mycenae in the 13th century. Many gems feature stylized dueling scenes.

In various tombs, several daggers stage hunting scenes where warriors face lions. Thus the Mycenaean warrior prince in the symbolic world of war and hunting. In Cnossos, before the Mycenaean invasion, the topics discussed were more peaceful. The technique of the fresco is greatly developed there as well as a series of iconographic attributes that will be found among the Mycenaeans. Art thus becomes the means for the elites to express their power and make their wealth visible. Gold is the perfect example of this, as is the presence of objects from far away - the exotica and the orientala - which allow their holder to stand out. Garment can play a similar role, especially purple which requires a complex manufacturing process. Besides the various debates about the Mycenaean chariot, some see the chariot as the quintessential symbol of power intended to be seen in parades. Thus, the one who collects the world attracts on him the necessary prestige which will allow him to differentiate himself from his peers and to be the best.

To conclude, we must emphasize a few points. All the studies devoted to the Minoan and Mycenaean civilization are based on relatively rare sources which must absolutely be crossed. Linear B alone cannot explain the functioning of these plural societies which have several elites. Archeology must be solicited, in particular the habitat, which provides information on a society but also by dating the discoveries. The funerary material makes it possible to specify a lot of information about the conception of the elites that the Mycenaeans and Minoans were to make. The Aegean world being open, the study of the Minoan and Mycenaean elites must be inserted in a sufficiently broad geographical framework to identify the main features. The Minoan heritage in the Mycenaean civilization is not to be overlooked. The chronological framework being extended, we had to be careful not to draw too large conclusions and to absolutely want to draw up a strict hierarchy within a well-defined framework.

Sometimes you have to accept a certain imprecision in order to then study a phenomenon as a whole by making comparisons. The aim of this presentation was to show that there does not seem to be a homogeneous elite but a real diversity within the same territory and at the same time. All this seemed to be confirmed when the palatial system collapsed at the end of the 13th century. Indeed, some of these elites certainly had to take advantage of the weakening of the palatial system and its beneficiaries to come to the fore. We think of course of the qa-si-re-u. In this, the Homeric epics whose semantic evolution will make qa-si-re-u the basileus, reinforce us in this supposed social rise of qa-si-re-u. The Mycenaean civilization does not die in the 13th century, its heritage will be affected centuries later. The proof is with Homer.


- CARLIER Pierre, Homère, Paris, Fayard, 1999.

- DARCQUE Pascal, L'habitat mycénien: forms and functions of the built space in continental Greece at the end of the 2nd millennium BC, BEFAR, 2005.

- TREUIL René (dir.), The Aegean civilizations, PUF, 1989.

- XENAKI-SAKELLARIOU Agnès, “Minoan identity and Mycenaean identity through figurative compositions, Bulletin de Correspondance Hellènes supplement 11, 1985.

Video: Who were the Ancient Minoans??