The reconstruction of Crete civilization

Crete will remain inwardly unknown until its secretive tablets find their Champollion.
minoan civilization

If now we try to restore this buried culture from the relics that remain—playing Cuvier to the scattered bones of Crete—let us remember that we are engaging upon a hazardous kind of historical television, in which imagination must supply the living continuity in the gaps of static and fragmentary material artificially moving but long since dead. Crete will remain inwardly unknown until its secretive tablets find their Champollion.

1. Men and Women

As we see them self-pictured in their art, the Cretans curiously resemble the double ax so prominent in their religious symbolism. Male and female alike have torsos narrowing pathologically to an ultramodern waist. Nearly all are short in stature, slight and supple of build, graceful in movement, athletically trim. Their skin is white at birth. The ladies, who court the shade, have fair complexions conventionally pale; but the men, pursuing wealth under the sun, are so tanned and ruddy that the Greeks will call them (as well as the Phoenicians) Phoinikes—the Purple Ones, Redskins. The head is rather long than broad, the features are sharp and refined, the hair and eyes are brilliantly dark, as in the Italians of today; these Cretans are apparently a branch of the “Mediterranean race.”* The men as well as the women wear their hair partly in coils on the head or the neck, partly in ringlets on the brow, partly in tresses falling upon the shoulders or the breast. The women add ribbons for their curls, while the men, to keep their faces clean, provide themselves with a variety of razors, even in the grave.10

A depiction of elite Minoan women.

The dress is as strange as the figures. On their heads—most often bare—the men have turbans or tam-o’-shanters, the women magnificent hats of our early twentieth-century style. The feet are usually free of covering; but the upper classes may bind them in white leather shoes, which among women may be daintily embroidered at the edges, with colored beads on the straps. Ordinarily the male has no clothing above the waist; there he wears a short skirt or waistcloth, occasionally with a codpiece for modesty. The skirt may be slit at the side in workingmen; in dignitaries and ceremonies it reaches in both sexes to the ground. Occasionally the men wear drawers, and in winter a long outer garment of wool or skins. The clothing is tightly laced about the middle, for men as well as women are resolved to be—or seem—triangularly slim.11 To rival the men at this point, the women of the later periods resort to stiff corsets, which gather their skirts snugly around their hips, and lift their bare breasts to the sun. It is a pretty custom among the Cretans that the female bosom should be uncovered, or revealed by a diaphanous chemise;12 no one seems to take offense. The bodice is laced below the bust, opens in a careless circle, and then, in a gesture of charming reserve, may close in a Medici collar at the neck. The sleeves are short, sometimes puffed. The skirt, adorned with flounces and gay tints, widens out spaciously from the hips, stiffened presumably with metal ribs or horizontal hoops. There are in the arrangement and design of Cretan feminine dress a warm harmony of colors, a grace of line, a delicacy of taste, that suggest a rich and luxurious civilization, already old in arts and wiles. In these matters the Cretans had no influence upon the Greeks; only in modern capitals have their styles triumphed. Even staid archeologists have given the name La Parisienne to the portrait of a Cretan lady with profulgent bosom, shapely neck, sensual mouth, impudent nose, and a persuasive, provocative charm; she sits saucily before us today as part of a frieze in which high personages gaze upon some spectacle that we shall never see.13

The “saffron-gatherer” fresco, from the Minoan site of Akrotiri on Santorini

The men of Crete are evidently grateful for the grace and adventure that women give to life, for they provide them with costly means of enhancing their loveliness. The remains are rich in jewelry of many kinds: hairpins of copper and gold, stickpins adorned with golden animals or flowers, or heads of crystal or quartz; rings or spirals of filigree gold mingling with the hair, fillets or diadems of precious metal binding it; rings and pendants hanging from the ear, plaques and beads and chains on the breast, bands and bracelets on the arm, finger rings of silver, steatite, agate, carnelian, amethyst, or gold. The men keep some of the jewelry for themselves: if they are poor they carry necklaces and bracelets of common stones; if they can afford it they flaunt great rings engraved with scenes of battle or the chase. The famous Cupbearer wears on the biceps of his left arm a broad band of precious metal, and on the wrist a bangle inlaid with agate. Everywhere in Cretan life man expresses his vainest and noblest passion—the zeal to beautify.

Cretans (Keftiu) bringing gifts to Egypt, in the Tomb of Rekhmire, under Pharaoh Thutmosis III (c. 1479-1425 BC)
Cretans (Keftiu) bringing gifts to Egypt, in the Tomb of Rekhmire, under Pharaoh Thutmosis III (c. 1479-1425 BC)

This use of man to signify all humanity reveals the prejudice of a patriarchal age, and hardly suits the almost matriarchal life of ancient Crete. For the Minoan woman does not put up with any Oriental seclusion, any purdah or harem; there is no sign of her being limited to certain quarters of the house, or to the home. She works there, doubtless, as some women do even today; she weaves clothing and baskets, grinds grain, and bakes bread. But also she labors with men in the fields and the potteries, she mingles freely with them in the crowds, she takes the front seat at the theater and the games, she sweeps through Cretan society with the air of a great lady bored with adoration; and when her nation creates its gods it is more often in her likeness than in man’s. Sober students, secretly and forgivably enamored of the mother image in their hearts, bow down before her relics, and marvel at her domination.14

2. Society

Hypothetically we picture Crete as at first an island divided by its mountains among petty jealous clans which live in independent villages under their own chiefs, and fight, after the manner of men, innumerable territorial wars. Then a resolute leader appears who unites several clans into a kingdom, and builds his fortress palace at Cnossus, Phaestus, Tylissus, or some other town. The wars become less frequent, more widespread, and more efficient in killing; at last the cities fight for the entire island, and Cnossus wins. The victor organizes a navy, dominates the Aegean, suppresses piracy, exacts tribute, builds palaces, and patronizes the arts, like an early Pericles.19 It is as difficult to begin a civilization without robbery as it is to maintain it without slaves.*

The power of the king, as echoed in the ruins, is based upon force, religion, and law. To make obedience easier he suborns the gods to his use: his priests explain to the people that he is descended from Velchanos, and has received from this deity the laws that he decrees; and every nine years, if he is competent or generous, they reanoint him with the divine authority. To symbolize his power the monarch, anticipating Rome and France, adopts the-(double) ax and the fleur-de-lis. To administer the state he employs (as the litter of tablets suggests) a staff of ministers, bureaucrats, and scribes. He taxes in kind, and stores in giant jars his revenues of grain, oil, and wine; and out of this treasury, in kind, he pays his men. From his throne in the palace, or his judgment seat in the royal villa, he settles in person such litigation as has run the gauntlet of his appointed courts; and so great is his reputation as a magistrate that when he dies he becomes in Hades, Homer assures us, the inescapable judge of the dead.21 We call him Minos, but we do not know his name; probably the word is a title, like Pharaoh or Caesar, and covers a multitude of kings.

The so-called Prince of the Lilies fresco from Knossos. Mostly a reconstruction.

At its height this civilization is surprisingly urban. The Iliad speaks of Crete’s “ninety cities,” and the Greeks who conquer them are astonished at their teeming populations; even today the student stands in awe before the ruined mazes of paved and guttered streets, intersecting lanes, and countless shops or houses crowding about some center of trade or government in all the huddled gregariousness of timid and talkative men. It is not only Cnossus that is great, with palaces so vast that imagination perhaps exaggerates the town that must have been the chief source and beneficiary of their wealth. Across the island, on the southern shore, is Phaestus, from whose harbor, Homer tells us, “the dark-pro wed ships are borne to Egypt by the force of the wind and the wave.”22 The southbound trade of Minoan Crete pours out here, swelled by goods from northern merchants who ship their cargoes overland to avoid a long detour by perilous seas. Phaestus becomes a Cretan Piraeus, in love with commerce rather than with art. And yet the palace of its prince is a majestic edifice, reached by a flight of steps forty-five feet wide; its halls and courts compare with those at Cnossus; its central court is a paved quadrangle of ten thousand square feet; its megaron, or reception room, is three thousand square feet in area, larger even than the great Hall of the Double Ax in the northern capital.

The mostly reconstructed “Campstool Fresco” from Knossos

Two miles northwest is Hagia Triada, in whose “royal villa” (as archeological imagination calls it) the Prince of Phaestus seeks refuge from the summer heat. The eastern end of the island, in Minoan days, is rich in small towns: ports like Zakro or Mochlos, villages like Praesus or Pseira, residential quarters like Palaikastro, manufacturing centers like Gournia. The main street in Palaikastro is well paved, well drained, and lined with spacious homes; one of these has twenty-three rooms on the surviving floor. Gournia boasts of avenues paved with gypsum, of homes built with mortarless stone, of a blacksmith’s shop with extant forge, of a carpenter shop with a kit of tools, of small factories noisy with metalworking, shoemaking, vasemaking, oil refining, or textile industry; the modern workmen who excavate it, and gather up its tripods, jars, pottery, ovens, lamps, knives, mortars, polishers, hooks, pins, daggers, and swords, marvel at its varied products and equipment, and call it he mechanike polis—“ the town of machinery.”23 By our standards the minor streets are narrow, mere alleys in the style of a semitropical Orient that fears the sun; and the rectangular houses, of wood or brick or stone, are for the most part confined to a single floor. Yet some Middle Minoan plaques exhumed at Cnossus show us homes of two, three, even five stories, with a cubicle attic or turret here and there; on the upper floors, in these pictured houses, are windows with red panes of unknown material. Double doors, swinging on posts apparently of cypress wood, open from the ground-floor rooms upon a shaded court. Stairways lead to the upper floors and the roof, where the Cretan sleeps when the nights are very warm. If he spends the evening indoors he lights his room by burning oil, according to his income, in lamps of clay, steatite, gypsum, marble, or bronze.24

Figures from the Agia Triada Sarcophagus.

We know a trifle or two about the games he plays. At home he likes a form of chess, for he has bequeathed to us, in the ruins of the Cnossus palace, a magnificent gaming board with frame of ivory, squares of silver and gold, and a border of seventy-two daisies in precious metal and stone. In the fields he takes with zest and audacity to the chase, guided by half-wild cats and slender thoroughbred hounds. In the towns he patronizes pugilists, and on his vases and reliefs he represents for us a variety of contests, in which lightweights spar with bare hands and kicking feet, middleweights with plumed helmets batter each other manfully, and heavyweights, coddled with helmets, cheekpieces, and long padded gloves, fight till one falls exhausted to the ground and the other stands above him in the conscious grandeur of victory.25

But the Cretan’s greatest thrill comes when he wins his way into the crowd that fills the amphitheater on a holiday to see men and women face death against huge charging bulls. Time and again he pictures the stages of this lusty sport: the daring hunter capturing the bull by jumping astride its neck as it laps up water from a pool; the professional tamer twisting the animal’s head until it learns some measure of tolerance for the acrobat’s annoying tricks; the skilled performer, slim and agile, meeting the bull in the arena, grasping its horns, leaping into the air, somersaulting over its back, and landing feet first on the ground in the arms of a female companion who lends her grace to the scene.26 Even in Minoan Crete this is already an ancient art; a clay cylinder from Cappadocia, ascribed to 2400 B.C., shows a bull-grappling sport as vigorous and dangerous as in these frescoes.27 For a moment our oversimplifying intellects catch a glimpse of the contradictory complexity of man as we perceive that this game of blood-lust and courage, still popular today, is as old as civilization.

3. Religion

The Cretan may be brutal, but he is certainly religious, with a thoroughly human mixture of fetishism and superstition, idealism and reverence. He worships mountains, caves, stones, the number 3, trees and pillars, sun and moon, goats and snakes, doves and bulls; hardly anything escapes his theology. He conceives the air as filled with spirits genial or devilish, and hands down to Greece a sylvan-ethereal population of dryads, sileni, and nymphs. He does not directly adore the phallic emblem, but he venerates with awe the generative vitality of the bull and the snake.28 Since his death rate is high he pays devout homage to fertility, and when he rises to the notion, of a human divinity he pictures a mother goddess with generous mammae and sublime flanks, with reptiles creeping up around her arms and breasts, coiled in her hair, or rearing themselves proudly from her head. He sees in her the basic fact of nature—that man’s greatest enemy, death, is overcome by woman’s mysterious power, reproduction; and he identifies this power with deity. The mother goddess represents for him the source of all life, in plants and animals as well as in men; if he surrounds her image with fauna and flora it is because these exist through her creative fertility, and therefore serve as her symbols and her emanations. Occasionally she appears holding in her arms her divine child Velchanos, whom she has borne in a mountain cave.29 Contemplating this ancient image, we see through it Isis and Horus, Ishtar and Tammuz, Cybele and Attis, Aphrodite and Adonis, and feel the unity of prehistoric culture, and the continuity of religious ideas and symbols, in the Mediterranean world.

Goddess image found at Knossos (note the tufts on the tails)

The Cretan Zeus, as the Greeks call Velchanos, is subordinate to his mother in the affections of the Cretans. But he grows in importance. He becomes the personification of the fertilizing rain, of the moisture that in this religion, as in the philosophy of Thales, underlies all things. He dies, and his sepulcher is shown from generation to generation on Mt. Iouktas, where the majestic profile of his face can still be seen by the imaginative traveler; he rises from the grave as a symbol of reviving vegetation, and the Kouretes priests celebrate with dances and clashing shields his glorious resurrection.30 Sometimes, as a god of fertility, he is conceived as incarnate in the sacred bull; it is as a bull that he mates in Cretan myth with Minos’ wife Pasiphaë, and begets by her the monstrous Minos-bull, or Minotaur.

Bull rhyton from Kato Zakros
Bull rhyton from Kato Zakros

To appease these deities the Cretan uses a lavish rite of prayer and sacrifice, symbol and ceremony, administered usually by women priests, sometimes by officials of the state. To ward off demons he burns incense; to arouse a negligent divinity he sounds the conch, plays the flute or the lyre, and sings, in chorus, hymns of adoration. To promote the growth of orchards and the fields, he waters trees and plants in solemn ritual; or his priestesses in nude frenzy shake down the ripe burden of the trees; or his women in festal procession carry fruits and flowers as hints and tribute to the goddess, who is borne in state in a palanquin. He has apparently no temple, but raises altars in the palace court, in sacred groves or grottoes, and on mountaintops. He adorns these sanctuaries with tables of libation and sacrifice, a medley of idols, and “horns of consecration” perhaps representative of the sacred bull. He is profuse with holy symbols, which he seems to worship along with the gods whom they signify: first the shield, presumably as the emblem of his goddess in her warrior form; then the cross—in both its Greek and its Roman shapes, and as the swastika—cut upon the forehead of a bull or the thigh of a goddess, or carved upon seals, or raised in marble in the palace of the king; above all, the double ax, as an instrument of sacrifice magically enriched with the virtue of the blood that it sheds, or as a holy weapon unerringly guided by the god, or even as a sign of Zeus the Thunderer cleaving the sky with his bolts.”31

Two Minoan snake goddess figurines
Two Minoan snake goddess figurines

Finally he offers a modest care and worship to his dead. He buries them in clay coffins or massive jars, for if they are unburied they may return. To keep them content below the ground he deposits with them modest portions of food, articles for their toilette, and clay figurines of women to tend or console them through all eternity. Sometimes, with the sly economy of an incipient skeptic, he substitutes clay animals in the grave in place of actual food. If he buries a king or a noble or a rich trader he surrenders to the corpse a part of the precious plate or jewelry that it once possessed; with touching sympathy he buries a set of chess with a good player, a clay orchestra with a musician, a boat with one who loved the sea. Periodically he returns to the grave to offer a sustaining sacrifice of food to the dead. He hopes that in some secret Elysium, or Islands of the Blest, the just god Rhadamanthus, son of Zeus Velchanos, will receive the purified soul, and give it the happiness and the peace that slip so elusively through the fingers in this earthly quest.

4. Culture

The most troublesome aspect of the Cretan is his language. When, after the Dorian invasion, he uses the Greek alphabet, it is for a speech completely alien to what we know as Greek, and more akin in sound to the Egyptian, Cypriote, Hittite, and Anatolian dialects of the Near East. In the earliest age he confines himself to hieroglyphics; about 1800 B.C. he begins to shorten these into a linear script of some ninety syllabic signs; two centuries later he contrives another script, whose characters often resemble those of the Phoenician alphabet; perhaps it is from him, as well as from the Egyptians and the Semites, that the Phoenicians gather together those letters they will scatter throughout the Mediterranean to become the unassuming, omnipresent instrument of Western civilization. Even the common Cretan composes, and like some privy councilor, leaves on the walls of Hagia Triada the passing inspirations of his muse. At Phaestus we find a kind of prehistoric printing: the hieroglyphs of a great disk unearthed there from Middle Minoan III strata are impressed upon the clay by stamps, one for each pictograph; but here, to add to our befuddlement, the characters are apparently not Cretan but foreign; perhaps the disk is an importation from the East.32

The clay tablets upon which the Cretan writes may some day reveal to us his accomplishments in science. He has some astronomy, for he is famed as a navigator, and tradition hands down to Dorian Crete the ancient Minoan calendar. The Egyptians acknowledge their indebtedness to him for certain medical prescriptions, and the Greeks borrow from him, as the words suggest, such aromatic and medicinal herbs as mint (mintha), wormwood (apsinthon), and an ideal drug (daukos) reputed to cure obesity without disturbing gluttony.33 But we must not mistake our guessing for history.

Restored model of a Minoan house found in Archanes
Restored model of a Minoan house found in Archanes

Though the Cretan’s literature is a sealed book to us, we may at least contemplate the ruins of his theaters. At Phaestus, about 2000, he builds ten tiers of stone seats, running some eighty feet along a wall overlooking a flagged court; at Cnossus he raises, again in stone, eighteen tiers thirty-three feet long, and, at right angles to them, six tiers from eighteen to fifty feet in length. These court theaters, seating four or five hundred persons, are the most ancient playhouses known to us—older by fifteen hundred years than the Theater of Dionysus. We do not know what took place on those stages; frescoes picture audiences viewing a spectacle, but we cannot tell what it is that they see. Very likely it is some combination of music and dance. A painting from Cnossus preserves a group of aristocratic ladies, surrounded by their gallants, watching a dance by gaily petticoated girls in an olive grove; another represents a Dancing Woman with flying tresses and extended arms; others show us rustic folk dances, or the wild dance of priests, priestesses, and worshipers before an idol or a sacred tree. Homer describes the “dancing-floor which once, in broad Cnossus, Daedalus made for Ariadne of the lovely hair; there youths and seductive maidens join hands in the dance . . . and a divine bard sets the time to the sound of the lyre.”34 The seven-stringed lyre, ascribed by the Greeks to the inventiveness of Terpander, is represented on a sarcophagus at Hagia Triada a thousand years before Terpander’s birth. There, too, is the double flute, with two pipes, eight holes, and fourteen notes, precisely as in classical Greece. Carved on a gem, a woman blows a trumpet made from an enormous conch, and on a vase we see the sistrum beating time for the dancers’ feet.

One side of the Phaistos Disc, on which we can see letters from Crete people

The same youthful freshness and lighthearted grace that animate his dances and his games enliven the Cretan’s work in the arts. He has not left us, aside from his architecture, any accomplishments of massive grandeur or exalted style; like the Japanese of samurai days he delights rather in the refinement of the lesser and more intimate arts, the adornment of objects daily used, the patient perfecting of little things. As in every aristocratic civilization, he accepts conventions in the form and subject of his work, avoids extravagant novelties, and learns to be free even within the limitations of reserve and taste. He excels in pottery, gem cutting, bezel carving, and reliefs, for here his microscopic skill finds every stimulus and opportunity. He is at home in the working of silver and gold, sets all the precious stones, and makes a rich diversity of jewels. Upon the seals that he cuts to serve as official signatures, commercial labels, or business forms, he engraves in delicate detail so much of the life and scenery of Crete that from them alone we might picture his civilization. He hammers bronze into basins, ewers, daggers, and swords ornamented with floral and animal designs, and inlaid with gold and silver, ivory and rare stones. At Gournia he has left us, despite the thieves of thirty centuries, a silver cup of finished artistry; and here and there he has molded for us rhytons, or drinking horns, rising out of human or animal heads that to this day seem to hold the breath of life.

As a potter he tries every form, and reaches distinction in nearly all of them. He makes vases, dishes, cups, chalices, lamps, jars, animals, and gods. At first, in Early Minoan, he is content to shape the vessel with his hands along lines bequeathed to him from the Neolithic Age, to paint it with a glaze of brown or black, and to trust the fire to mottle the color into haphazard tints. In Middle Minoan he has learned the use of the wheel, and rises to the height of his skill. He makes a glaze rivaling the consistency and delicacy of porcelain; he scatters recklessly black and brown, white and red, orange and yellow, crimson and vermilion, and mingles them happily into novel shades; he fines down the clay with such confident thoroughness that in his most perfect product—the graceful and brightly colored “eggshell” wares found in the cave of Kamares on Mt. Ida’s slopes—he has dared to thin the walls of the vessel to a millimeter’s thickness, and to pour out upon it all the motifs of his rich imagination. From 2100 to 1950 is the apogee of the Cretan potter; he signs his name to his work, and his trade-mark is sought throughout the Mediterranean. In the Late Minoan Age he brings to full development the technique of faience, and forms the brilliant paste into decorative plaques, vases of turquoise blue, polychrome goddesses, and marine reliefs so realistic that Evans mistook an enamel crab for a fossil.35 Now the artist falls in love with nature, and delights to represent on his vessels the liveliest animals, the gaudiest fish, the most delicate flowers, and the most graceful plants. It is in Late Minoan I that he creates his surviving masterpieces, the Boxers’ Vase and the Harvesters’ Vase: in the one he presents us crudely with every aspect and attitude of the pugilistic game, adding a zone of scenes from the bull-leaper’s life; in the other he follows with fond fidelity a procession probably of peasants marching and singing in some harvest festival. Then the great tradition of Cretan pottery grows weak with age, and the art declines; reserve and taste are forgotten, decoration overruns the vase in bizarre irregularity and excess, the courage for slow conception and patient execution breaks down, and a lazy carelessness called freedom replaces the finesse and finish of the Kamares age. It is a forgivable decay, the unavoidable death of an old and exhausted art, which will lie in refreshing sleep for a thousand years, and be reborn in the perfection of the Attic vase.

Sculpture is a minor art in Crete, and except in bas-relief and the story of Daedalus, seldom graduates from the statuette. Many of these little figures are stereotyped crudities seemingly produced by rote; one is a delightful snapshot in ivory of an athlete plunging through the air; another is a handsome head that has lost its body on the way down the centuries. The best of them excels in anatomical precision and in vividness of action anything that we know from Greece before Myron’s time. The strangest is the Snake Goddess of the Boston Museum—a sturdy figure of ivory and gold, half mammae and half snakes; here at last the Cretan artist treats the human form with some amplitude and success. But when he essays a larger scale he falls back for the most part upon animals, and confines himself to painted reliefs, as in the bull’s head in the Heracleum Museum; in this startling relic the fixed wild eyes, the snorting nostrils, the gasping mouth, and the trembling tongue achieve a power that Greece itself will never surpass.

Nothing else in ancient Crete is quite so attractive as its painting. The sculpture is negligible, the pottery is fragmentary, the architecture is in ruins; but this frailest of all the arts, easy victim of indifferent time, has left us legible and admirable masterpieces from an age so old that it slipped quite out of the memory of that classic Greece of whose painting, by contrast so recent, not one original remains. In Crete the earthquakes or the wars that overturned the palaces preserved here and there a frescoed wall; and wandering by them we molt forty centuries and meet the men who decorated the rooms of the Minoan kings. As far back as 2500 they make wall coatings of pure lime, and conceive the idea of painting in fresco upon the wet surface, wielding the brush so rapidly that the colors sink into the stucco before the surface dries. Into the dark halls of the palaces they bring the bright beauty of the open fields; they make plaster sprout lilies, tulips, narcissi, and sweet marjoram; no one viewing these scenes could ever again suppose that nature was discovered by Rousseau. In the museum at Heracleum the Saffron Picker is as eager to pluck the crocus as when his creator painted him in Middle Minoan days; his waist is absurdly thin, his body seems much too long for his legs; and yet his head is perfect, the colors are soft and warm, the flowers still fresh after four thousand years. At Hagia Triada the painter brightens a sarcophagus with spiral scrolls and queer, almost Nubian figures engrossed in some religious ritual; better yet, he adorns a wall with waving foliage, and then places in the midst of it, darkly but vividly, a stout, tense cat preparing to spring unseen upon a proud bird preening its plumage in the sun. In Late Minoan the Cretan painter is at the top of his stride; every wall tempts him, every plutocrat calls him; he decorates not merely the royal residences but the homes of nobles and burghers with all the lavishness of Pompeii. Soon, however, success and a surfeit of commissions spoil him; he is too anxious to be finished to quite touch perfection; he scatters quantity about him, repeats his flowers monotonously, paints his men impossibly, contents himself with sketching outlines, and falls into the lassitude of an art that knows that it has passed its zenith and must die. But never before, except perhaps in Egypt, has painting looked so freshly at the face of nature.

All the arts come together to build the Cretan palaces. Political power, commercial mastery, wealth and luxury, accumulated refinement and taste commandeer the architect, the builder, the artisan, the sculptor, the potter, the metalworker, the woodworker, and the painter to fuse their skills in producing an assemblage of royal chambers, administrative offices, court theaters, and arenas, to serve as the center and summit of Cretan life. They build in the twenty-first century, and the twentieth sees their work destroyed; they build again in the seventeenth, not only the palace of Minos but many other splendid edifices at Cnossus, and in half a hundred other cities in the thriving island. It is one of the great ages in architectural history.

The creators of the Cnossus palace are limited in both materials and men. Crete is poor in metal and quite devoid of marble; therefore they build with limestone and gypsum, and use wood for entablatures, roofs, and all columns above the basement floor. They cut the stone blocks so sharply that they can put them together without mortar. Around a central court of twenty thousand square feet they raise to three or four stories, with spacious stairways of stone, a rambling maze of rooms—guardhouses, workshops, wine press, storerooms, administrative offices, servants’ quarters, anterooms, reception rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, chapel, dungeon, throne room, and a “Hall of the Double Ax”; adding near by the conveniences of a theater, a royal villa, and a cemetery. On the lowest floor they plant massive square pillars of stone; on the upper floors they use circular columns of cypress, tapering strangely downward, to support the ceilings upon smooth round capitals, or to form shady porticoes at the side. Safe in the interior against a gracefully decorated wall they set a stone seat, simply but skillfully carved, which eager diggers will call the throne of Minos, and on which every tourist will modestly seat himself and be for a moment some inches a king. This sprawling palace in all likelihood is the famous Labyrinth, or sanctuary of the Double Ax (labrys), attributed by the ancients to Daedalus, and destined to give its name in aftertime to any maze—of rooms, or words, or ears.*36

As if to please the modern spirit, more interested in plumbing than in poetry, the builders of Cnossus install in the palace a system of drainage superior to anything else of its kind in antiquity. They collect in stone conduits the water that flows down from the hills or falls from the sky, direct it through shafts to the bathrooms and latrines, and lead off the waste in terra-cotta pipes of the latest style—each section six inches in diameter and thirty inches long, equipped with a trap to catch the sediment, tapering at one end to fit into the next section, and bound to this firmly with a necking of cement.38 Possibly they include an apparatus for supplying running hot water to the household of the king.39

To the complex interiors the artists of Cnossus add the most delicate decorations. Some of the rooms they adorn with vases and statuettes, some with paintings or reliefs, some with huge stone amphorae or massive urns, some with objects in ivory, faïence or bronze. Around one wall they run a limestone frieze with pretty triglyphs and half rosettes; around another a panel of spirals and frets on a surface painted to simulate marble; around another they carve in high relief and living detail the contests of man and bull. Through the halls and chambers the Minoan painter spreads all the glories of his cheerful art: here, caught chattering in a drawing room, are Ladies in Blue, with classic features, shapely arms, and cozy breasts; here are fields of lotus, or lilies, or olive spray; here are Ladies at the Opera, and dolphins swimming motionlessly in the sea. Here, above all, is the lordly Cupbearer, erect and strong, carrying some precious ointment in a slim blue vase; his face is chiseled by breeding as well as by art; his hair descends in a thick braid upon his brown shoulders; his ears, his neck, his arm, and his waist sparkle with jewelry, and his costly robe is embroidered with a graceful quatrefoil design; obviously he is no slave, but some aristocratic youth proudly privileged to serve the king. Only a civilization long familiar with order and wealth, leisure and taste, could demand or create such luxury and such ornament.

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Ancient Rome

Story of Pompey in Rome

When Crassus and Pompey returned from this campaign they did not, as the Senate wished and law required, disband or disarm their troops at the gates.

history of cambodia
South East Asia

Quick history of Cambodia

Cambodia has known peace, sometimes for extended periods, but always under rulers who enforced peace.

alexander great liberate egypt
Ancient Egypt

Alexander: Liberator of Egypt

A shrewd and far-sighted ruler or a pitiless warlord, Alexander the Great’s military prowess led him to conquer the powerful kingdom of Egypt

World War II

Living under Nazism

Hitler’s murderous regime would govern Germany for over 12 years, using propaganda and oppression to further his totalitarian goals. Konrad H Jarausch explores how Nazi rule afected the German people

history of singapore
South East Asia

Quick history of Singapore

Singapore is an immigrant society. When acquired by Britain in 1819 it was populated by only a few hundred Malays living simple lives in fishing villages.

Euro Medieval

Towards disaster

If art is the mirror of civilization, Byzantine civilization stood high. Its eleventh-century artists showed all the restraint and balance of their classical ancestors

history of indonesia
South East Asia

Brief History of Indonesia

Indonesia’s geography is an integral part of its history. A sprawling archipelago straddling the equator, Indonesia has more than 13,500 islands.

Ancient Rome

Philosophy and literature come to Rome

The Greek conquest of Rome took the form of sending Greek religion and comedy to the Roman plebs; Greek morals, philosophy, and art to the upper classes.