Continuity and Change in Minoan Palatial Power

Article excerpt


The major palaces of Bronze Age Crete acted as regional power centres for a period of around 500 years, through both the First Palace (c. 1925-1750 BC) and Second Palace (1750-1425 BC) Periods. The question we wish to pose in this short paper is whether there were any significant changes in the nature of palatial power over this time. The most popular theory appears to be that Minoan palatial systems were centralized and redistributive in both the First and Second Palace Periods, with palatial centres exerting considerable economic and political control over their hinterlands (Finley 1970; Renfrew 1972; Branigan 1988; Palaima 1990).

For the First Palace Period at least, this orthodoxy has recently been challenged, in separate doctoral theses by each of the present authors (Schoep 1996; Knappett 1997). For example, in a study comparing the pottery from the palatial centre of Malia with that of Myrtos Pyrgos, a village site within its territory, it emerged that, although the centre may have had ideological influence over a wide domain, its economic power was relatively circumscribed at the regional level (Knappett 1997, 1999). It was suggested that this situation might represent the existence of a state more decentralized than centralized in character.

But if we wish to examine the nature of political organization in theLIecond Palace Period a very basic problem awaits us -- how many states were there? Some believe that each palatial centre controlled its own polity (Warren 1985; Cherry 1986; Soles 1991: 73-6), as seems to have been the case in the First Palace Period. Other scholars, however, consider Knossos to have been the political centre for the whole island (e.g. Hood 1983; Wiener 1990: 150). These seemingly opposed views need not be mutually exclusive, however; each palatial site may have held a certain degree of (economic?) control over its immediate hinterland, whilst at the same time ceding ideological supremacy to Knossos (cf. Soles 1991: 76). The picture of regional political organization is complicated still further by the discovery in recent years of yet more palatial centres, for example at Galatas (Rethemiotakis 1999), Petras (Tsipopoulou 1997) and Archanes (Sakellarakis 1997). Yet these discoveries would appear to be consistent with the notion of a mosaic of polities of different sizes, to a large degree independent but at the same time owing ideological allegiance to Knossos.

One question in particular arises: what is the nature of palatial power, and how does it change from the First to the Second Palace Period? In order to chart the shifting nature of political authority, attention should be given to both its cultural and its economic underpinnings. Brief consideration is given here to both, but our focus is predominantly on the economic aspects -- in other words, how did Minoan elites manipulate economic resources further to integrate and centralize their power? This essentially amounts to a study of the numerous elements of the Minoan political economy. For the purposes of our analysis we shall here adopt the general approach outlined by Smith (1991), in which political economy is described in terms of three critical components; it is argued that all state polities find a need to accumulate, bureaucratize and capitalize. These three features Smith christens the `ABC' of political economy. This format will be used to analyse certain aspects of the Minoan evidence from the First and Second Palace Periods.


In a particular situation which calls for decisions to be made, certain individuals may react to the situation and make choices on behalf of the wider community. When that situation is safely negotiated, those decision-making individuals may or may not continue in their roles at this stage a more permanent crystallization of these roles may depend on the resources available to the individuals involved. Without an accumulated fund to provide manoeuvrability in their actions, these individuals' roles will almost certainly remain situational and will therefore evaporate as the situation recedes. …