Why Palaces?


If the traditional extraterrestrial being lands on earth, knocks on the gates of the nearest city, and makes the traditional request: “Take me to your leader”, where will he be taken? In many of the great cities of the past, the answer will be easy: he will be taken to the Palace, where he will be received (or not) by the ruler, the Pharaoh, the Minos, or the Emperor — and there will be no doubt as to who is the ruler.

However in classical Greece or Rome the answer would have been more complex.  Indeed in classical Athens, he would have been led to the Prytanaeum, where the standing committee of the Council for the month was accommodated, and he would have been introduced to the chairman for the day, probably a simple farmer chosen by lot who had just for that one day become the representative of the city.

There is a huge gulf between the two approaches, the gulf between what I call a Palace society and a market-based society, and it is this difference that forms the difference between what I call barbarism and what I call civilisation.

The first farmers

When the first farming villages began to emerge, they tended to be egalitarian with the houses being of much the same size, even if one often became rather larger than the others. However a big difference came with the advent of bronze.  The first metal to be used was copper, which produces nice ornaments, but a poor cutting edge. Bronze however, the admixture of tin with copper, produces a much more effective cutting edge. However bronze is much more difficult to produce, for whereas copper working involves just one metal,  bronze involves the admixture of tin to the copper, and tin and copper are not normally found in the same place.

Thus a network of traders emerged to bring together these two very different metals, and this brought  about an altogether more complex level of society. With bronze we begin to move from a village society to an urban  and then a  Palace society, where a single ruler takes over the organisation of the whole society, forcing the other members of the society to pay him dues and to work for him, while rewarding them with the occasional ‘gifts’ and with feasts and festivals which provided a good blowout and the opportunity to dispose of some of the huge surpluses which rulers tend to accumulate.

And combined with this,  the rulers began to see themselves as gods, and huge temples and elaborate burial rituals were introduced, culminating in the Pyramids of Egypt and demonstrating the power of the ruler and the success of his organisation. Writing too was invented, though in a form so complex that only professional scribes could read it. This is the age traditionally associated with the rise of civilisation, because this is when the first cities arose.  However I prefer to keep the term civilisation in the sense in which it is generally used, as being a way of life associated with freedom and democracy.

Many of the great empires were hugely successful – the Egyptian empire built the pyramids. What is more, they were often very long-lived – Egypt’s lasted for at least 2000 years — longer if one includes the successor kingdoms,  while it can be argued that the Chinese empire has lasted down to the present day. Nevertheless there is I believe, a fundamental difference between the palace-based empires and the civilisations of Greece and Rome. The basis of the difference is money, which changes the whole basis of the economy, allowing economic decisions to be made much lower down the supply chain, so there was no longer any need for a great single organisation to control the economy – the economy can basically look after itself. As a result, we get the beginnings of democracy, the belief that people could control their own lives, a difference that lies at the core of this book.

The Minoans

First however we must ask how these great empires worked. Here we begin with one of the smaller empires, that of the Minoans who flourished in Crete. This is perhaps the best example of a Palace-based empire, because the palaces are so well preserved, and there are no great temples,  and the royal burials are comparatively modest and do not detract from the importance of the palaces. The decipherment of their language, Minoan Linear B, also provides a fascinating insight into the workings of a palace-based empire.

And then there is Egypt, in many ways the greatest most fascinating and certainly best documented of these empires. Here we see a magnificent example of how a great empire arose and how indeed they built the great Pyramids which remained the tallest building on earth until the Middle Ages. However the palaces of Egypt are little known and tend to be overshadowed by the temples and burials; though there is one palace in particular at Amarna that was built by the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten, and then abandoned after his death which does provide a fascinating insight as to how the Egyptian palaces worked.

We also look at a third empire that is very different, that of China. This is later than the other two, its rise corresponding to the rise of the Roman Empire, but it was very long-lived – indeed it could be said that it continues down to the present day. Unlike the others, it used money but they did not have a market economy and all the major decisions were made — and continue to be made — within the walls of the Palace. But it remains a fascinating example of how a Palace empire worked — and works

There are other great palace-based empires which we do not have space to describe  here — those of Mesopotamia for instance, which are as early as those of Egypt and equally powerful.  Then there are the empires of India as well as those in the New World, of the Maya and the Incas: all have fascinating stories,  but they are stories which are not unlike those told here. I believe that the three empires I have described are good examples of how these palace empires worked,  and how they differ from those of Greece and Rome – and how they differ from our modern societies which are the descendants of, and to some extent the continuation of the great market-based civilizations that were first introduced in Greece and Rome.


On to How palaces work


13th July 2016