Thanks to poetry and works of art, the Mycenaean Age lives on today in our imaginations as the springtime of our civilization, our first blushing youth. Adventures of daring heroes, loves which bound mortals and gods, mysterious oracles, great feats of arms, dangerous sea expeditions towards unknown lands where great treasures lay guarded by terrible monsters – such is the legendary stuff of those few centuries.
The decipherment of the clay tablets has revealed a new face of that age. Of course, even before the decipherment it was understood that poetic imagination must surely have lent a shining glow to what must have been a more prosaic truth. Yet, as soon as the script has spoken, we learned that the age which serves as the setting of practically every Greek myth was first and foremost an age of tireless pedantic bureaucratic activity: a vast army of bureaucrats controlled a strictly centralized economy through the manufacture of tons of accounting records. It turns out to make no difference whether one writes on paper or on clay; nor does the bookkeeping system make any difference. Indeed, considering their primitive level of material development we must admit that when it came to their efforts to record all details of their economic reality, Mycenaeans could easily compete with every other economic management to date.
And this despite the fact that the archives which have come down to our times must surely be but a small fragment of the great bureaucratic output of the vast state apparatus of command and control of the time. Yet even this is enough to create a rather depressing impression. It’s natural, of course, that the palace had to keep records of various categories of soil and a careful population census. The constant recounting of the contents of the state treasury – objects made of gold, silver, bronze, ivory, weapons and chariots – is also understandable. What is striking, though, is the meticulous record of every smallest vessel of olive oil or wine, of every measure of wheat: from whom it was received, to whom it was issued, how it was spent or used – for the needs of the king or the staff, or for divine sacrifice. The office also wished to know what at any one moment every one of its subjects is doing – and where; what work he was performing and the amounts – in goods or labor – still due from him.
Thus, we have before us several thousand short warehouse notes: lists, receipts, and commands of the sort: issue; send; receive; owes; there is. These short notes allow us to form a certain image of the state and its society. It’s only fragmentary, of course, and somewhat nebulous but some things are quite clear: both the political structure and the class and property relations were complex and inflexible; they do not recall in the least any of those idyllic freedoms which are so easy to imagine when we think of the mythical age.
There were in Greece at the time several centers of political power; all may have recognized the primacy of Mycenae, at least formally. At the head of each state stood a ruler titled wanax. In later Greek the original meaning of this word was changed: wanax (or rather, as one then began to pronounce it, anax) was merely a powerful lord, an aristocrat. In the Mycenaean times, wanax meant the first person of the kingdom, its king; he performed also priestly functions; his position was nearly divine. This is perhaps why so many heroes of the myths are considered to be sons of gods and why the title “son of Zeus” is used by Homer for every prince. Below the wanax there stood his highest official, lawagetas, which could be rendered as “leading the people”, the equivalent of our wojewoda. It seems that his political power may have been no smaller than that of the wanax; and in some instances he may have controlled the reins of power. The subsidiary princes controlling smaller divisions of land were called basileus. It was this title which in later centuries, after the fall of the Mycenaean world, assumed the meaning of “ruler” or “king”.
Rulers had by their side a team of warriors; these were called epeta. In addition to them, to courtiers and court ladies, and to the lower serving classes (who may have been slaves) there were also, in each palace, large numbers of artisans: smiths, goldsmiths, potters, cartwrights, even makers of incense. Above them was placed a large contingent of scribes noting scrupulously how many cloaks were left in storage, how many oarsmen ought to be sent to Pleuron, who, and in what amount, submitted spices for food, which chariot needed a new wheel. We must say one thing in their defense: as Mycenaeans did not possess coins and all pay was paid in kind, careful evidence of property was in order.
We will yet have the chance to speak of the great treasures of Mycenaean palaces, and where they came from; for now let us say that the basis of the economy lay in the production of grain, vine and olives as well as in animal husbandry. But what of the property relations? Sources are not clear on this and scholars are divided. It seems that the lands belonging to the king – and perhaps to the princes, also – were called temenos. The same word was used for the property of the gods. Some pieces of land seem to have been held in common by the communities; others were held privately; both kinds were often leased out. Every piece of land was of course evidenced in the state archive and weighed with heavy dues. It could not be leased without state permission.
Mycenaean bureaucracy was not unique in the world at the time. We see similar systems of government in Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. But comparison with the record of the clay tablets found in the Syrian city of Ugarit is instructive. Ugarit archives date to the same period (fourteenth-thirteenth centuries B.C.). Yet, in the Ugarit record we also find religious texts and fragments of poems as well as trade and tax records. But the Mycenaean record is nothing but pedantic, all-encompassing, merciless account-keeping.
It is often said that the Mycenaean world collapsed in the twelfth century as a result of the invasion of wild barbarians from the north, the Doric tribes. But it is interesting to try to imagine how these arrivals from the north managed to capture the massive Mycenaean fortresses. It is suggested that their victory was due to their superior weapons: the Dorians are supposed to have had iron while the Mycenaeans only bronze. This is not certain: there is no evidence that the Dorians used much iron; and in any case, iron weapons do not confer much advantage over bronze weapons, certainly not the sort that firearms offer over bows and arrows. Finally, neither iron swords, nor indeed numerical superiority would have been of much use against the Cyclopean walls of Mycenaean fortresses, had only those fortresses been manned by a people determined to defend themselves. Even later, in classical times, large and well armed armies often proved useless when faced with even minor fortifications: there was simply not enough useful siege machinery.
Given all this, another theory seems attractive: that Mycenaeans gave in to Dorians because their subjects were not interested in defending a state whose sole purpose was to record – control – collect. The greatest enemy of Mycenaean fortresses were not iron-clad Dorians down below but their own bureaucrats scratching out little symbols on their clay tablets inside.
Various aspects of bureaucracy are subject to the famous laws of Parkinson (summed up in Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress). The first of these concerns the self-sufficiency and alienation of the bureaucracy; other laws, proposed in a later work, present in great detail the mechanism and consequences of the growing tax burden. The basic problem, says Parkinson, lies in the fact that the bureaucracy is unable to understand that there is an objective upper limit to tax obligations. It is difficult to discover this limit through economic measurement because it is not a function of the level of income or productivity, but of certain inalienable features of human psychology. In some situations, given a certain tax burden, it simply becomes inefficient for the populace to continue working productively; its main object becomes finding methods to dodge its tax obligations. In such instances, the bureaucracy becomes a kind of cancerous growth, which functions very well for its own needs, flourishes and multiplies but – kills the organism which supports it.
Ancient history knows many examples of sudden collapses of great states and whole civilizations as a result of this disease. Perhaps the fall of the Roman Empire, bureaucratized to its very core, is the most famous example. Roman citizens welcomed their barbarian invaders with relief. Mycenaean archives allow us to guess that the destruction of the world which they served came in a similar manner.
If so, it would the first instance of the functioning of the laws of Parkinson on our continent.