Monday, February 23, 2015


Dimitri Nakassis, Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 358. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013. Pp. xiv, 448. ISBN 9789004244511. $171.00.

Reviewed by Barbara Olsen, Vassar College (

Version at BMCR home site


In this important monograph Dimitri Nakassis reexamines Pylian prosopography in a crucial and essential update to Margareta Lindgren's landmark The People of Pylos: Prosopographical and Methodological Studies in the Pylos Archives (Uppsala, 1973). Named individuals have received far less scholarly attention than their titled counterparts – a critical weakness in the scholarship given that most words preserved in Mycenaean Greek are the personal names of men and women (ca. 1,930 out of 3,350). Nakassis's narrative focuses on 800 of these names: the subset of names appearing more than once in the Pylos corpus. (An extensive appendix addresses all the Pylian names, including those appearing as hapax legomena.) In this study, Nakassis would approximate the tasks of the scribes themselves, who devoted more than half of their lexicon to personal names, by returning to the central focus of the texts themselves: the transactions of the palace and the individuals who interacted with it. The redirection of attention to individuals rather than institutional titles facilitates the recovery of the backgrounds and activities of named people, who occupied a wide range of social positions (from shipwright and herders to collectors and telestai). By focusing on those names mentioned more than once in the archive, Nakassis strikes new ground in his proposition that multiple mentions of the same name may refer to the same individual in the enactment of multiple roles.

Chapter 2 establishes Nakassis's methodology for identifying Mycenaean personal names and linking recurring names with distinct and discrete individuals. Names are identified from both linguistic forms and textual contexts, and sound strategies are offered to respond to textual homonymy (multiple words spelled with the same characters) and heteronymy (different spelling variations for the same name). Nakassis estimates that individuals named on the tablets likely constituted 2% of Pylos's population or approximately 20% of those tracked by the palace scribes, which equates to around 6% of Pylos's adult male population. (Women receive far less textual attention by name.)

Having established his criteria for identifying named persons at Pylos, Nakassis turns to the broader question of prosopographical matching. Previous studies (Lejeune 1971, Lindgren 1973, Chadwick 1975) chose not to link multiple instances of the same name with specific individuals, especially where different toponyms were present. Nakassis is critical of this degree of skepticism, noting that these studies employed differential and inconsistent standards for identification. This criticism seems correct, especially in light of Chadwick's and Lindgren's willingness to accept prosopographical matches for figures of high rank and dissociation for those who seemingly belonged to the lower classes. But, Nakassis asks, what if named persons operated across multiple locales or came not only from the uppermost ranks? What might present a plausible case for identification?

Nakassis establishes a prosopography where matching is achievable, by focusing on interconnections and interactions among the named. His is a preponderance-of-evidence strategy, using cumulative matches across tablets, series, locations, and functions to link names with single individuals, and to compile from these matches dossiers on the activities of specific men and women. In doing so, he offers four categories for the relative security of such matches: certain, probable, possible, and tenuous. (One might prefer more clearly identified criteria for these categories, and in places, sharper signposting between arguments based on certainty rather than probability and possibility.) Central to his argument is challenging geography as dissociative since geography serves as a conclusive determinant against prosopographical identification in only a very small number of cases. In Nakassis's reformulation, then, prosopographical identification or dissociation of individuals should be based on lexical and contextual grounds.

An example of a certain prosopographical identification would be the man Komāwens (ko-ma-we). The o-ka text An 519 places ko-ma-we among the watchers along the coast of Messenia; on this tablet ko-ma-we appears in conjunction with genitive de-wi-jo, a term which appears also on Aq 218.10, this time in conjunction with the personal name Pakhullos (pa-ku-ro2). As de-wi-jo occupies the same position on this tablet as at least four other patronymics, Nakassis argues that we should regard de-wi-jo as a patronymic with certainty. Nakassis notes the overlap of eight terms between Aq 218 and the o-ka texts and places *de-wo as the father of the (now recognized) brothers Komāwens and Pakhullos. This reading is further strengthened by the presence of both (brothers') names on Jn 750, where they appear in close proximity. As such, Nakassis's method is complex, but his linkages are defensible and plausible. While these are important connections per se, even more compelling are the doors they open. Kinship, for example, has remained one of the most elusive institutions of Mycenaean society. Nakassis's work identifying these brothers and their father offers a new and tremendously exciting point of entry.

Through addressing the transactional contexts in which Komāwens appears, the range of his activities can also be recovered. An 519 places Komāwens with a military detachment along the coast, and PY Jn 750 gives him a small allotment of bronze. The name appears again on Cn 925 as the name of a herder of pigs. No lexical connection is present so the case must rest solely on contextual evidence. The tablet lists three names, all with the toponym da-we-u-pi. Nakassis notes that one of the two remaining names e-do-mo-ne-u appears twice in the Jn series as a smith and once in the En/Eo series as a landholder. Nakassis further notes that while the terms ko-ma-we and e-do-mo-ne-u do not appear together on any single Jn text, both appear in the Jn series as smiths. From these convergences, Nakassis then examines the odds of random overlap of such names and notes a particularly high correspondence between the names of herders in the Cn series and the names of smiths in the Jn, concluding from this evidence that the likelihood of the pig-herder and the smith/military officer being the same person are more than probable, which would then place Komāwens as active at three different toponyms in three different capacities – a circumstance that he views as unlikely for a reading of Komāwens as a low-ranking individual because appearances at multiple sites tend to be a marker of high-status individuals. This example serves to illustrate Nakassis's methodology – his argument rests strongly on cumulative circumstantial evidence, but his statistical analysis, logic, and thoroughness are compelling. This is a difficult path to walk, but Nakassis's careful attention to detail creates a thoroughly compelling set of cases, and through them he offers the exciting possibility of rereading Mycenaean (regional and nonpalatial) elites. This work is nothing short of revolutionary.

In two chapters, Nakassis notes considerable overlap between named individuals involved in smithing and herding (Chapter 3) and landholding and military affairs (Chapter 4). The Jn and Cn series each offer the largest cohesive sets of named individuals, with 263 and 199 names, respectively. Beginning with the smiths, Nakassis notes that strong linkages emerge between recurring names in the Jn series and those of herders in the Cn tablets, positing that many of same people were involved in both tasks. While earlier scholarship regarded most if not all of these names as distinct, Nakassis argues these dissociations were made from insufficient evidence: Jn series names recur too frequently for random homonymy. A likelier reading is that the same individuals were active at more than one site in the Pylian kingdom, suggesting that it is the individual rather than the location that should be considered the basic unit of Mycenaean production. As such then, (at least some) smiths should be thought of as mobile, operating at various locales within the Pylian state. When the 30 overlapping names between the Jn and Cn series are assessed, Nakassis finds significant overlaps between these smiths and herders beyond mere chance; it would be "highly probable" that the same men performed both tasks for more than 90% of the recurring names. From these connections, Nakassis proposes that rather than regard these smith/herders as men of low rank, these named men were important enough to have multiple responsibilities within the palatial administration and to be operating in several locations. Likewise, Nakassis notes possible and probable linkages between smiths and the men of the o-ka tablets and men in the An and E series, concluding that these smiths might have also doubled as military commanders, telestai, and a possible e-qe-ta and priest. Nakassis suggests most smiths may have been landholders. Herders, likewise, show similar patterns to smiths in their name recurrences. Twenty-seven can be matched (with certainty or strong probability) with smiths, suggesting similar social status and roles.

Chapter 4 continues to apply this methodology based on lexical and contextual clues to names associated with military officers and landholders (alongside the names of those individuals who receive rations, textiles, and hides from the palace). While results here vary, nonetheless the general conclusions established in Chapter 3 seem to hold for these groups: once again strong arguments for prosopographical identifications can be made and named individuals can be tracked against a wide range of activities. A notable pattern sees the frequent repetition of named individuals of elevated standing with allocations from the palace in the form of land, skins, textiles, or foodstuffs. Some of these individuals hold religious office or appear in texts with religious associations and military matters; others also appear to provide important materials to the palace, such as payment of gold. Nakassis notes that many of the herders and smiths of Chapter 3 are involved in these activities as well, with many matching those classified in his "Certain" category. Nakassis interprets this as indicating that smithing and herding were not limited to the nonelite. From these circumstances, he draws one of his most important conclusions: that it is very difficult to generalize about any group of named individuals, even those bearing the same official titles: in addition to the previously discussed herders and smiths, even the activities of the hekwetai are quite variable on an individual level. From these observations, Nakassis concludes that no consistent pattern explains such prosopographical identifications on titular grounds and that this must indicate a lack of administrative design, leaving as the only option that such variations have to be the result of complex interactions between individuals, social groups, and the palace itself, and hence, that the categories of elites and nonelites were more fluid and complex than scholarship has previously envisioned.

The text concludes with a discussion of the ramifications of detaching title as the primary marker of status in the Mycenaean world. If prosopographical dossiers are included as well, property, allocations, and responsibilities at multiple locales may serve as an equally important way of assessing – and redefining – palatial and regional elites, with a resultant major expansion of the latter category. Throughout, Nakassis argues that named individuals were not a homogenous group, but instead varied in status and importance. On the elite side we see a few individuals named across multiple tablets and involved with key affairs of the palace; on the low-ranking side are individuals appearing only in a single text with relatively minor responsibilities. Nakassis argues that his prosopography identifies some 200 individuals who fall between these extremes. This group can been seen operating in multiple economic spheres, often in different locales across Pylos; Nakassis identifies them as members of a broader elite, outside the palatial hierarchy of officeholders, who derive from wealthy families across Messenia, either performing themselves the activities recorded or supervising and delegating tasks to their dependents or kin.

Overall, the work is most successful. Nakassis presents a largely persuasive argument for a near one-name, one-individual identification and for the operation of individuals in multiple locales. Moreover, his collection of multi-tablet dossiers for individuals allows the cross-referencing of a broader elite, with previously unrecognized responsibilities and spheres of operation. His index collecting all data on named individuals and their degree of prosopographical certainty opens new avenues for the analysis of previously explored topics, such as production and administration, and it provides a way to explore topics previously inaccessible to scholarship, perhaps most importantly the vital topic of kinship relations – arguably our largest remaining gap in Mycenaean studies. Highly recommended.

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