Article Information

Paper Intro

Pages One and Three


Listing of Illustrations


Cultural Comparison & Contrast Between
Minoans and Classical Athenians

Final Term Project

Professor Tisa Abshire-Walker
Anthropology 4: Prehistory
Copyright © 1996 B. A. "Collie" Collier


Minoan Buildings and Palaces






Despite recurring earthquakes, which completely destroyed the old palaces and twice interrupted the development of the new palace centers, our building styles at their most beautiful can be demonstrated by our palaces. These buildings are marvelous -- they're more like big households than imperial monuments. Good stone and timber framing give the buildings a measure of resilience -- very valuable in an earthquake zone (Eisler 35). Local and imported materials are used in the buildings: gypsum and tufa pilasters and tiles, sturdy walls with well-made and -attached facades, light-wells and courtyards. Buildings are graceful, built with an eye to comfort, and beautifully decorated. Partitions are decorated with plaster, murals, and sometimes even marble facings. Not only are the walls decorated, but often the ceilings and floors as well are covered with paintings, as we do in our villas, country houses and simple town dwellings (Platon 143). Everywhere frescoes are ablaze with color and shrines attest to our devotion to the goddess.

The great palace at Knossos is amazing. There are long lines of large storerooms with connecting corridors that are used for the orderly safekeeping of food reserves and treasures, and many tablets of records -- alas, I am not literate, so I cannot read them to you. Hundreds of rooms are laid out in organized "labyrinths" -- storerooms, workrooms, and living rooms, including royal apartments, but structured so as to not isolate the royal family. There are also many other apartments covering several stories, at different heights, arranged around central courtyards and including special rooms for religious worship. Courtiers and domestic staff have their own quarters in the palace or occupy attractive houses nearby. It's airy, bright, commodious, exuberant with color, open to the sky, with access to the surrounding countryside via wide terraces. Minoan architects are concerned chiefly with "livableness," not size or splendor.

Gardens are an essential feature of Minoan architecture (Eisler 34) -- the spacious inner gardens and courts allow for light and fresh air in the multiple-storied buildings. There is also a system to circulate water, so that flush toilets and bathtubs make life more comfortable. We take pains with ventilation, sanitation, and especially drainage; our drains are a marvel of technical skill and ingenuity, unequaled in the world until your time-period. King Minos enjoys more comfort and ease than Louis XIV will ever knew at Versailles (Muller 77).

Public rooms are usually on the second floor. The grand stone staircase, the colonnaded verandas, and the splendid reception suite are typical of our culture -- we prefer aesthetic appreciation rather than a monumental emphasis. The throne room has a beautifully simple chair for its central ornament, with benches flanking it on either side. It is believed to be the oldest throne in the world. Vast halls, with rows of elegant columns, are used for audiences, receptions, banquets, and council meetings (Eisler 34). Cretan palace architecture is a superb blend of life- enhancing and eye-pleasing features, rather than the monuments to authority and power characteristic of Sumer, Egypt, Rome, and other warlike (and male dominated) societies (Eisler 35).

Our rulers seem to have become collectively known as King Minos to the Greeks. The Athenians see (appropriately enough) in our rulers a symbol of justice; upon King Minos' death he carries on in Hades as a judge of the dead. The Athenians are right in one respect: our rulers are not despotic, but assure us a cooperative law and order, a security so sure that our cities have no need of defensive walls (Muller 79).

Athenian Buildings and Palaces




The Athenians build no palaces. However, Pericles said he wanted Athenians to be "lovers of beauty without extravagance..." With that in mind, let us look at Athens' main buildings and statues. In the Acropolis alone, there is the Parthenon, the enormous statue of Athena Promachos, another large statue of Athena inside the temple, the Propylaia (with its temple to Athena Nike), and the Erechtheion. Elsewhere there is the temple of Hephaistos, the Odeion, the Theater of Dionysos, the temple of Poseidon, and the hall for the celebration of the Mysteries at Eleusis. I would hate to see what Pericles considered 'extravagant.'

These temples and sculptures are usually huge and raised up, making the viewer seem small and insignificant as a consequence. The monolithic columns that frame them are usually of one of three standard styles or 'orders.' These orders determine what style the temple will be. The frieze will be of oversized sculpture, usually of a religious theme associated with the temple's deity or some bit of warfare or hero the Athenians wish to glorify. I could go on, but it becomes tedious -- and I have some specific quotes later in my speech, so I'll go on. Over time, one can see that Athenian sculpture develops an excessive emphasis on technical skill for its own sake -- and artists almost always sign their works.

Minoan Distribution of Wealth

One feature of Cretan society that the Athenians seem to find remarkable, and that sharply distinguishes us from other "high" civilizations, is our rather equitable sharing of wealth. Here, centralization of government does not bring with it autocratic rule. Nor does it entail the use of advanced technology only for the benefit of a powerful few or the kind of exploitation and brutalization of the masses that is so striking in several of our neighbors. In Crete there is an affluent ruling class, but it is not enforced with massive armed might. Furthermore, the standard of living -- even of what you call "peasants" -- is high. This is not to say that Crete is richer than, or even as rich as, Egypt or Babylon. But in view of the economic and social gulf between those on top and those on the bottom in other 'high' civilizations, it is important to note that the way we use and distribute our wealth is markedly different (Eisler 32). Indeed, we enjoy more personal liberty than any other civilized people (Muller 79).

We use writing to keep track of things, and there are people whose job it is to keep records in order. Governmental revenues from our island's increasing wealth are judiciously used to improve living conditions, which are (even by your Western standards) extraordinarily "modern." All urban centers have perfect drainage systems, sanitary installations, and domestic conveniences. Extensive public works -- paid for out of the royal coffers -- are undertaken in Minoan Crete: viaducts, paved roads, look-out posts, roadside shelters, water pipes, fountains, reservoirs, and more. We even have large-scale irrigation works with canals to carry and distribute water (Platon 15). Our royalty, instead of building huge, repetitious, oppressive monuments to their greater glorification, focuses time, money, and effort on public works -- which is why even our common people live quite comfortably.

Aside from our vast multi-storied palaces, we also have villas, farmsteads, harbor installations, networks of roads crossing the island from end to end, organized places of worship and planned burial grounds (Platon 15). Knossos itself is connected to the south coast ports by a fine paved highway, the first of its kind in the world. Its streets, like those of other palace centers such as Mallia and Phaistos, are paved and drained, fronted with neat two or three floor houses that are flat-roofed, sometimes with a penthouse for use on hot summer nights (Hawkes 58). The handsome vases and house furnishings of ordinary merchants in small provincial towns testify that our wealth and culture are widely diffused (Muller 80).

Crete is dotted with bustling towns -- according to Homer there are a hundred of them, swarming with multitudes - - in which small, private merchants thrive and adorn their homes with lovely works of art. Their personal seals can be seen everywhere -- we value both trade and tradespeople. Technology and crafts are held in great esteem here. The ports are home to a large mercantile fleet that sails the entire Mediterranean, greatly contributing to the economic prosperity of the country. The inner towns surrounding the palaces are well designed for civilized living (Hawkes 123), with a high degree of refinement and comfort. The houses are adapted to all practical needs of life, and an attractive environment is created around them. Minoans are very close to nature and, as I pointed out before, our architecture is designed to let us enjoy it constantly (Platon 15).

Athenian Distribution of Wealth

The classical Athenians do not take houses very seriously. They think that public buildings -- temples, theaters, law-courts, fountains -- are more important than private houses. This seems a bit sad, considering that the women spend all their lives in these makeshift houses. The normal Greek house, in both town and country, is made of sun-baked bricks on a stone foundation and has very flimsy walls. Often it has a partial second story, and is roofed with tiles. There is usually a courtyard, and a number of not very large rooms off it. The courtyard sometimes contains a well, and if the man owning the house is rich there might be a bathroom.

Inside the rooms things are simple. Floors are beaten earth, and windows are high, small and unglazed. Wealthy houses might add a stone floor, sometimes with mosaic decorations, and tapestries on the walls. This housing can be characterized as small, poorly furnished, and dirty. They are crowded together, separated by streets which are usually just stony alleys, winding, narrow and smelly, with a runnel of filthy water down the middle. Yet in the center of the city the civic buildings are impressive, large, well-built and expensively decorated. Oddly enough, the irony of this dichotomy seems to have escaped most Greeks. In fact most of their cities, like Athens, just grew up haphazardly around their agora (Amos & Lang 148-9).



Last Updated: Thu Jun 10 1999