Monday, September 6, 2010

Reasoning/Spirited: A Grand Narrative Approach to Greek History #2

Although I criticized The Origins of Greek Thought on both specific points and general approach in my last blog post, Vernant incorporates a number of persuasive and thought-provoking claims in his narrative tale of the origins of Greek Rationality. One of the descriptions that caught my attention is his description of the bureaucratic royalty of the Mycenean palace culture:
"social life appears to have been centered on the palace, whose function was at once religious, political, military, administrative, and economic. In this palace-centered economic system, as it has been called, the king brought together and fused in his own person all aspects of power and sovereignty. Through the agency of the scribes, who formed a professional class established by tradition, and a complex hierarchy of palace dignitaries and royal inspectors, the king controlled and closely regulated all sectors of economic life and spheres of social activity" (Vernant 24).
This passage struck my attention because it reminded me of a passage in Herodotus on which I spent a lot of time and concentration. In Book I when Herodotus describes the founding of the Persian empire by Deiokes, he describes a similar bureaucratic palace structure, except of course that Deiokes becomes so paranoid that he no longer leaves the palace. Furthermore, the palace structure itself sounds somewhat like the image that Vernant describes for the Mycenean palace:
"the Mycenean manor, centered on the megaron [a great central hall] and the throne room, is a walled fortress, a chieftain's den, dominating and keeping watch over the plain at is feet. Constructed to withstand siege, this citadel sheltered the quarters of the king's intimate associates, the military leaders and the palace dignitaries, alongside the princely dwelling and its outbuildings" (Vernant 28)
Unlike the Persian palace that Herodotus describes [1], the Mycenean palaces were not built in concentric circles. Here is an example of the palace floorplan at Pylos [2]:

However, the fortified structure around the king and the treasury and the specialized circle of scribes to maintain a stranglehold on the life of the subject who build their homes around the palace directly follows the description that Herodotus provides. My guess would be that Herodotus saw (or heard about) the ruins of the old Persian palaces, heard the name Deiokes from local history and legend, and attributed aspects of the Greek past to the Persian past of a similar time period.

For anyone who reads Ancient Greek: 1.97-1.100 in Herodotus was one of my favorite passages (when I find my notes, I will do a translation of this section) in any Greek text I have read. The nested structure of the sentence that describes the concentric circles is so incredibly cool. I highly recommend it.

  1. I believe that Herodotus does describe an actual Persian type of architecture, although I do not believe that there were ever seven concentric walls surrounding this type of palace. I would cite the source for this belief, but unfortunately I cannot find the paper that I wrote on Deiokes' palace (which is also the reason that I have not taken the time to do my own translation of the passage from the original Greek). I do believe, however, that this was the book that provided me with the information about the archaeological evidence for Persian architecture: Culican, William. The Medes and the Persians. New York: Praeger, 1965. 
  2. This image comes from the Brown website. More awesome images of this type can be found at the Bryn Mawr website.

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