Mycenaean Civilization: Social Structure & Political Organization

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

The Mycenaeans were the first Greek civilization, and were a strictly hierarchical, and mostly male-dominated society. Read more about the Mycenaeans' social structure in this lesson.

Mycenaean Civilization

You have probably heard about battles in the ancient cities of Sparta and Troy, and about the legendary tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Did you know that evidence suggests those battles and tales were not part of the ancient Greek empire, but a previous civilization called the Mycenaean? The Mycenaean civilization was the first Greek civilization, meaning they were the first to speak and write the Greek language. They ruled most of Greece from about the 17th to 12th centuries BCE. They eventually took over the island of Crete from the Minoan civilization.

Mycenaean Palace Personnel

The Mycenaeans had a strict hierarchy of social classes. The ruler of the Mycenaeans was called the wanax, literally the ''king'' or ''ruler.'' The wanax was in charge of typical king-like roles such as making laws, and determining tax amounts. Since the Mycenaean religion was part of the government, the wanax was also associated with the religion, and probably performed some ceremonial roles. The telestai, according to some researchers, were probably religious leaders who were in charge of the religious rituals, ceremonies and offerings. Others think the telestai might have just been influential land owners.

Although it makes sense that these leaders worked in the palace, the palace was also home to artisans. The artisans were the craftsmen who made things like armor, pottery and weapons. They were supplied with materials by the administrators of the kingdom, and would be commissioned to create products that were needed for the military or common people. They also made luxury items.

Mycenaean stirrup vase probably created by an artisan in the palace
Mycenaean stirrup vase

Mycenaean Military

The Mycenaeans notoriously liked to fight, so it made sense that they had a military leader who was high up on the hierarchy. This leader was called the lawagetas. The lawagetas was the second-highest person in the kingdom. He was probably in charge of leading the military, though some researchers think he was just a prince. Being in charge of the army, the lawagetas led the hequetai. The hequetai were a separate warrior class. They were typically cavalry who would ride horses or small chariots into battle, unlike the lower class foot soldiers.

Mycenaean hequetai driving a small chariot
Mycenaean hequetai driving a small chariot

Middle Class Mycenaeans

Somewhere in the middle of the social hierarchy were the workers or laborers. It is unclear how the workers functioned, and how they were perceived in this hierarchy, but they were the people who ran the important parts of the society. Workers were typically farmers, builders, fishermen, shepherds and so on--the people who provided for the everyday life and needs of the civilization. They probably had a relationship with the upper class similar to the lord and vassal system of medieval Europe. An upper class person owned a plot of land, and hired a worker to plant and harvest crops there in exchange for a percentage of the harvest.

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