Dimitri Nakassis reimagines Bronze Age history

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Dr. Nakassis details a different perspective of Mycenaean society, suggests people should move away from stereotypes of Bronze Age societies. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Thursday, Oct17, the classical studies department of the College of William and Mary welcomed Dr. Dimitri Nakassis for the 2019 Lee Lecture. His presentation, “The World Before Odysseus: Rethinking the History of Late Bronze Age Greece,” analyzed prior scholarship on the topic and argued for a more dynamic understanding of Mycenaean society. 

Nakassis is a classics professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His research examines the material and textual production of early Greek communities. Nakassis was introduced by Dr. Georgia Irby, a classical studies professor at the College, who emphasized Nakassis achievements and contributions to the field.  

“Dr. Nakassis innovative prosopography shows that Mycenaean society was far more socially dynamic than previously thought,” Irby said. 

“Dr. Nakassis innovative prosopography shows that Mycenaean society was far more socially dynamic than previously thought,” Irby said. 

Nakassis began his lecture by arguing that the dominant framework for interpreting early Greek history and the Late Bronze Age is deeply flawed and strived to convince his audience that both eras were more dynamic than many conventional scholars suggest.  

“The dominant model claims that the Late Bronze Age is a period characterized by monarchical systems centered on Near Eastern-style palaces, that these palaces monopolized activities, that they were fundamentally un-Greek and that their collapse paved the way for the development of the classical period,” Nakassis said. “But I hope to convince you by the end of the lecture that, at the very least, the Late Bronze Age isn’t as boring or as monolithic as people would have you believe.” 

Nakassis examined earlier scholarship on Late Bronze Age Greece. He discussed the work of Moses Finley, who argued that the Mycenaeans were not Greek due to their ties to the Near East. Nakassis stated that Finley’s perspective on the Mycenaeans influenced the work of later scholars, including Paul Cartledge, Edith Hall and Victor Davis Hanson — but also critiqued the perspective for being excessively narrow. 

“This kind of thinking is remarkably simplistic,” Nakassis said. “It plays into a series of Orientalist stereotypes. The idea behind these stereotypes is that Europe and the West are dynamic, historical, individualistic and freedom loving, right? And the Orient — or what we would call the ancient Near East and the modern-day East, for that matter — is static, rigid and despotic. This way of thinking really does dominate the way people talk about the Mycenaeans today.” 

To refute Finley’s claims, Nakassis examined a series of Linear B tablets with English translations. He argued that these texts contradict the theory of a collectivized Mycenean economy. While the palaces could tax agricultural goods, the tablets reveal that the people administered the land themselves. Most land was controlled by small communities rather than palaces. Nakassis also argued that there was a thriving private sector in the Mycenaean economy that was free from monarchical control. 

Nakassis continued by demonstrating how the tablets challenge the stratified characterization of Mycenaean society. Although he conceded that women are underrepresented in the texts, Nakassis emphasized how the people described in the tablets were often commoners who lacked royal or official titles. 

“The old image isn’t accurate,” Nakassis said. “Empirical work shows that the palatial economy was not this all-powerful system. The palace was a powerful economic institution, but it was a complex structure that interfaced in many different ways with private economic actors. The palace wasn’t some kind of bureaucratic machine that was ruled by an all-powerful monarch, either.” 

“The old image isn’t accurate,” Nakassis said. “Empirical work shows that the palatial economy was not this all-powerful system. The palace was a powerful economic institution, but it was a complex structure that interfaced in many different ways with private economic actors. The palace wasn’t some kind of bureaucratic machine that was ruled by an all-powerful monarch, either.” 

Nakassis lecture emphasized the many facets of Mycenaean society. According to Nakassis, the arguments of scholars like Moses Finley are grounded in ethnic bias and are therefore inadequate scholastic explanations of Mycenaean life. Rather than being strictly centralized and stratified, Mycenaean society possessed nuanced socioeconomic structures that frequently go unacknowledged. 

After listening to Nakassis speech, Sydney Kennedy ‘22 expressed her thoughts on the lecture and remarked that the talk touched on classical studies’ Eurocentrism problem. 

“That’s kind of what I took away the most, that we really need to work harder to move away from these kinds of Near Eastern stereotypes, Kennedy said. 

“That’s kind of what I took away the most, that we really need to work harder to move away from these kinds of Near Eastern stereotypes, Kennedy said. 

Morgan Blackwelder ‘21 also commented on the dominant narrative when talking about the classical world. 

“Especially now, we do have this ideal notion of Greece in our head,” Blackwelder said. “This whitewashed view of the classical world when it isn’t really representative of Greece.” 

In his final statements, Nakassis acknowledged that there are limitations in the textual evidence. He also expressed a need for further archaeological evidence, especially from smaller Mycenaean villages. Nakassis concluded by proposing the creation of a more flexible historical model that integrates textual and material evidence. 

 “I do think that appreciating the complexity of the Greek world is an important move in our attempt to get away from the kind of simplistic stereotypes and narratives that I criticized at the beginning of my talk,” Nakassis said.