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Morris Silver
Economics Department
City College of New York


This is a very rough translation of selected extracts from Jean-Pierre Oliver's paper on the sale of slaves at Mycenaean Knossos, "Des extraits de contrats de vente d'esclaves dans les tablettes de Knossos". The translation is certainly not definitive (nor even a literate equivalent of Oliver's vivid style). It is intended only to alert those interested in the ancient economy to the existence of this important article.

If Olivier has correctly interpreted these tablets (and, since the article's appearance in 1987, no alternative viewpoint has been published; indeed the fact of Mycenaean "sales" has passed without comment), it suggests, to my mind, that a world of buying and selling existed outside and beyond the palatial redistributive system.

Judith Weingarten


Extracts from


Studies in Mycenaean and Classical Greek: John Chadwick (Minos 20-22, 1987) 479-498

1. Two tablets -- one recently joined from fragments (KN B 988), the other nearly complete, discovered by Evans at the start of the century (KN B 822), but which, because of lack of comparanda, could not be satisfactorily interpreted until now -- now can give a more precise idea of certain aspects regarding the sale of chattel slaves in Mycenaean society; and also allow us to postulate, on a relatively solid basis, the existence of Mycenaean juridical texts, more precisely contracts.

2. KN B 988

pa-qo-si-jo, si-ra, qi-ri-ja-to [
ka-ra-na-ko,/ ko-ma[-we-]to, do-e-ro, VIR 1 [

[nb: interrogative dots under .b ] to, -e- ro, numeral 1]

... context: Area of Bull Relief ...
... scribe: not-identified ...

3. KN B 822

] po-da-qe-re-si-je-wo
]pi-ro / si-ra-ko, qi-ri-ja-to//ku-te-ro/ku-ro2-jo, do-e-ro, VIR 1
] vacat

[nb: interrogative dots under .1a -da- ... -si; .1b pi... ]

... context: Area of Bull Relief ...
... scribe: not identified ...

Paleographical remarks on KN B 988 and B 822
The scribes are different, the page layouts also....

5. Table comparing the elements of B 988 and B 822 [extract]

----------- B 988-----------------------------B 822
7.-------- VIR--------------------------------------------VIR

6. Philological Commentary

A) Anthroponyms

a) pa-qo-si-jo: nom. Sing. ... In Dq 441, [pa-]qo-si-jo is a shepherd at da-*22-to, dependent on a "collector" named o-re[-te-wo] (gen); one cannot be sure if this is the same individual, but note that, in both cases, pa-qo-si-jo is connected with a "collector" and that the "collector" of B 988 (ko-ma-we(-to) is active at da-*22-to on KN Dk 920: two indications, at least, which should not be ignored.

b) ka-ra-na-ko: acc. Sing.; hapax ...

c) ko-ma-we-to: gen. Sing. ... ko-ma-we-to is known seven times at Knossos ... it is practically certain that, in most cases (if not in all) it is the same person and that he is a "collector".

d) ]pi-ro: nom. sing.; hapax ...

e) ku-te-ro: acc. Sing; hapax ...

f) ku-ro2-jo: gen. sing ...

B) Trade Names

a) do-e-ro: acc. masc. sing.; a term frequent in our texts, both (as here) in the masc (some 120 times) and in fem (some 70 times) = /doelon/ ... a slave, a servant ...

b) si-ra(-ko): see below under F.

C) Verbs

qi-ri-ja-to: 3rd pers. Sing. Aor. Which we find twice more at Knossos (Ai 1037.2 and Ai 5976.1 [footnote 31]; = /quriato (Od. I, 430) exactly concerning a servant): "he has bought" [footnote 32]

Footnote 31: Without doubt, concerning slaves in both cases ....

Footnote 32: This interpretation, which dates back to A. Furumark, Eranos 52 1954, p. 20, has total unanimity behind it (although the Glossary of Documents2, p. 577 preceded it with a prob....). The grammarians (such as M. Lejeune, Phonetique, p. 52), the etymologists (such as P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire III, 1974, p. 938) and the historians (such as Y. Garlan, Les esclaves en Grece ancienne, 1982, p. 40) have unhesitatingly adopted this meaning without further discussion. Such unanimity is rather uncommon in Mycenaean studies and deserves to be underlined.

D) The ideograms

VIR: ...

E) The numbers

Each time 1 ...

F) ??? : si-ra / si-ra-ko

si-ra: hapax ...

si-ra-ko: taken as the name of a shepherd on KN Db 8352 ... (Ai 5976.1 and B 822.1b), but incomprehensible as such ...

... whether the variation of si-ra / si-ra-ko represents an error or not, or is the same basic word or not -- concerning the function and the nature of si-ra(-ko), only two possibilities seem open:

1. Either attach it to the anthroponym which precedes it and make it a trade name.

2. Or attach it to the verb which follows ...

The first solution has several advantages:

a) trade names are a well known category in our archives; it is also what one most expects to find after an anthroponym in order to better specify the individual named, especially when the tablet (as here) has no toponym.

b) .. a trade name is frequently used also as the name of a person (as the shepherd on KN Db 8352) ...

c) ... while it could be sheer coincidence, a trade name does let me call upon good old Hesychius (without whom no dubious etymology would succeed) sv sirarchos, a "chief of prison" ...

The second solution presents more difficulties:

a) because adverbs etc are rather rare, even non-existent, in our Linear B texts ...

b) because if the term modifies the expression "has bought", our ignorance of Mycenaean society is such that we could image almost anything from "in good faith" to "on credit" or whatever ...

c) if a juridical term, there is a good chance that the term disappeared before the first millennium or, if it left a trace, we would know nothing of its semantic evolution. I shall not speculate here on the "sense" of do-e-ro- and qi-ri-ja-to; much has been written regarding the first term -- although there still remains an enormous amount to write; practically nothing has been written on the second word [footnote 44] and for good reason: what can we hope to know about "a purchase" in Mycenaean society? ....

Footnote 44: Except by P. Chantraine, Scritti...Bonfante I, Brescia 1976, p. 147, and also Dictionnaire, IV-2, 1980, p. 1302-03.

But the fact is that B 822 and B 988 are archival documents like all other Linear B documents, even if they have a somewhat special character; this too inclines me towards the first solution (and not merely because it is "less difficult").

To conclude the philological study, I give a choice between two translations:

"A certain (]PI-RO or pa-qo-si-jo, exercising a profession, has bought (KU-TE-RO or KA-RA-NA-KO), slave of (ku-ro2 or ko-ma-we) MAN 1"

"A certain (]PI-RO or pa-qo-si-jo, in such a condition and/or in such a manner, has bought (KU-TE-RO or KA-RA-NA-KO), slave of (ku-ro2 or ko-ma-we) MAN 1"

7. Archival Comments

We need to ask the following questions: what kind of texts are these? What was their origin? What was their purpose?

In the first place, there is evidence that these are documents like all the others.

1. KN B 822 and B 988 are clay archival documents like other Linear B documents.

2. They were found along with hundreds of other clay archival documents from which they do not differ significantly in form ... or in layout (while they are different one from the other, they both belong to known types).

3. While their texts are rigorously parallel (with the exception of the "variant" si-ra / si-ra/ko ...) they were written by two different scribes who are both otherwise unknown -- whether by chance or this indicates something which escapes us.... This fact, however, should not be too stressed because both scribes write in the "graphic tradition of the Northern Entrance".

4. They are accounting documents, in that they end with an ideogram plus a number.

In the second place, however, KN B 822 and B988 also differ from most other tablets in the same deposit and indeed from most Linear B tablets in general:

1. These documents use an entire phrase with -- at least -- a subject, verb and object, which is rather rare (except on the cadastral tablets from Pylos ....)

2. The structure of the phrase is exactly the same in both cases although the page layout is totally different (however, the proper name of the slave is written in capitals both times).

3. ...

... one wonders if the model of each of the two phrases, from B 988 on the one hand and B 822 on the other, were not taken from other texts -- not necessarily written on clay -- other texts which were constructed on a common model but worked out differently or serving a different function; perhaps texts which could be defined as an "act for the transfer of slave property".

What would we expect to find in such an act? Besides the names of the seller and buyer, of course, the name of the slave: exactly the items that we find here. We would also expect:

a) the date of the transaction;
b) the place where the transfer took place;
c) the conditions of the transfer (such as, the price that was paid and the manner in which it was or would be paid);
d) the name or seal of witnesses or guarantors of the transaction.
Because these four points are lacking in B 822 and B 988, they cannot be the acts themselves, at least not stricto sensu.

In short, since there was a transfer of property, there was a contract; since there was a contract -- at least if not an oral contract -- there was an act and this act followed a particular form of which we have a trace in the phrase: "A first person, si-ra(-ko), bought a second person, [who is] a slave belonging to a third person....

There remains one problem of considerable importance: what was the relationship between the buyer (pa-qo-si-jo or ]pi-ro) and the Palace? If he was a representative or employee of the Palace, fine: he bought the slave for the account of the Palace and it is in no way surprising that a record was issued for the "new slave" and that this contained the name of the buyer (on behalf of the Palace), and that of the former owner (inevitably, in some sense, from outside the Palace). That the "civil servants" of the Northern Entrance who registered the new slaves were not interested in the place, date, price nor in other conditions of this transaction is normal since, after all, they only needed to note where this "chattel" came from and how it was acquired (in effect, who was responsible for the purchase).

On the other hand, if the buyer was not an employee of the Palace, one must look at the problem from a new angle. Even if the buyer or seller was in a close relationship with the Palace (perhaps a "collector?), would that justify writing an "extract" from the contract of sale on clay and depositing it in the economic archives of the Palace? Yes, perhaps, if the slave in question worked in some way for, or depended upon, the Palace. If not, one cannot understand why these records were found among inventories of goods belonging to the Palace or entering or leaving the Palace ....

8. Conclusions

In any case, some things seem to me to be reasonably certain.

1. In the Mycenaean era, there were contracts for the sales of chattel slaves; the acts concerning these contracts, undoubtedly written on perishable material, were perhaps preserved somewhere in the Palace: we know nothing of this....

2. What interested the palatial administration above all, in these clay documents, was the slave himself (his name was always written in capitals and he was indicated by the ideogram for MAN followed by the number 1.

3. We do not know for sure if the slave was bought for the account of the Palace, although that is the most likely possibility ....

4. The most likely hypothesis is that this type of tablet was an entry record ... marking the arrival of a new individual among the chattel servants of the Palace.

5. The big difference between these and other tablets -- and a good part of the reason for their archival, juridical and historical interest -- ... is that they are derived almost certainly from a legal instrument ... from a contract of sale.

Certainly one term -- si-ra(-ko) -- is still a problem; certainly, the exact semantic value of the words "has bought" escapes us ... ; certainly, the exact social status of the do-e-ro will still cause a lot of ink to flow. In spite of that, these twin documents, KN B 988 and B 822, constitute for us, thirty years after the decipherment of Linear B, the first solid evidence for the existence of Mycenaean juridical texts.