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.

Palaces are basically the norm among the more complex ancient societies. Simple societies — those which emerged with the beginning of farming in the Neolithic are often assumed to be relatively egalitarian. But soon more complex societies emerged — I like to think that the invention of bronze played a role, for bronze needs two metals: copper and tin, and it is complex to procure them from different places. These societies need to have centralised direction, which means a ruler, and gradually the ruler became more powerful: the ruler was at the top and everyone else was beneath him, often in a series of steps or ranks. These societies have a pyramid shape with the ruler at the top of the pyramid and relative levels of the society in steps beneath him. These societies can be organised in different ways: sometimes round a temple, for the ruler becomes a god. Sometimes they are organised round the burial place of former rulers, like the pyramids of Egypt, or the Maya in America. But many are organised around a palace and of these palace societies, the best example is that of the Minoans on Crete. I thus use the term ‘palace societies’ to encompass all these different forms.


But there is a different form of society. It is one which first came into existence in Greece and Rome, a type of society in which we are living today. This is based on a different form of economics where instead of goods being distributed by the ruler, they are bought and sold in the market place from one person to another, without the intervention of the ruler. To do this properly, money is needed, so this sort of society is normally linked to the invention of money.

And once this new form of economics comes into existence, the whole shape of society changes. Instead of being a pyramid, it becomes much flatter, more like a pancake or doughnut: people no longer have to kowtow to the ruler, and they begin to think for themselves, and have their own ideas — subversive ideas about things like democracy: they want to take their own rule into their own hands – quel horreur!

And in the second part of this book, we will see how these societies came into existence, and how they changed the world.


Let us start by looking at the Minoans.

Who were the Minoans?


13th July 2016 revised 18th March 2020