Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

FARMERS are not the only ones to complain mightily about the amount of bureaucratic red tape that entangles their operations. It was ever thus, to judge by records surviving from 14thcentury Bc Greece.

These ancient records were written in a script we call Linear B, and survive only because they were written (delicious paradox) on temporary clay tablets before being transferred to more permanent materials, e.g. skins; but when the palaces were burnt down, the clay was fired hard and so preserved, whereas the 'permanent' materials were destroyed.

These Linear B tablets preserve records of economic activity, and cover four main types of transaction: taxation (on an annual basis, with recurrent formulae for assessment, payments and deficit, if any), agricultural production, maintenance of palace staff, and craft production (chariots, textiles, furniture, leather goods, etc.). Religious activity was also monitored, and records kept of offerings, land and allowances that were given to gods, workers (in return for services) and priests.

One can get some idea of the enthusiasm of the civil servants from the details of the records. Stocks of spare chariot wheels are recorded: `one pair of wheels, bound with silver'; `one pair of cypress-wood with borders, and one single wheel'; `six pairs, unfit for use'. …

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