Today’s column is a continuation of my series. If you’d like a handout of the entire series along with accompanying photos, send me an email.
From Egypt and Mesopotamia, we now travel northwest to Crete where the Minoans had developed an astonishingly sophisticated civilization of paved roads, earthquake-resistant engineering, drainage, sewage and irrigation systems, and ran successful trade throughout the Mediterranean.
They combined copper from Cypress with tin from modern-day Afghanistan to produce bronze — and the Bronze Age of Greece. They attained amber from the Baltic, ebony and ivory from Africa, and glass ingots from Egypt. What did this little island have to offer in return? Olive oil. Like today, oil was the bargaining chip of the known world’s economy.
The Minoans were gravely weakened by an earthquake around 1400 B.C., followed by an invasion of the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece (broadly think of them as Athenians). The Mycenaeans could not help but be impressed by Minoan skill and culture and wisely absorbed all they could. They then reinforced the stability of their growing Athenian Empire with a united written and spoken language — modern day Greek.
It’s true. I’ve skipped crucial wars with Persia and Sparta, Alexander the Great, and the beginnings of democracy itself. Let’s just say that if Greece had not been surrounded by the sea, its existence might have been a mere footnote. Greece was mountainous and rock-laden, lacking any fertile rivers that would allow farming. They had no choice but to look to the sea to survive and become expert ship builders, seafarers and traders.
The Greeks’ Classical period, 510 B.C.-323 B.C., produced great mathematicians and philosophers (Pythagoras, Thales, Socrates, etc.) who bolstered the strength and intelligence of this golden age.
Like the Egyptians, the Greeks used post and lintel construction. As such, the buildings were rectangular with a perimeter of columns. Roofs were made of timber beams and terracotta tiles. Pediments (flattened triangles at each gable end) and lintels were filled with friezes (horizontal bands) of decorative sculptures.
Around the 4th century B.C., Greek architects moved to circular plans and embellished with black marble to highlight architectural elements and rich contrasts.
Besides pediments and friezes, buildings were adorned with freestanding sculptures, bas reliefs (slightly raised sculptures still attached to their backgrounds), and figurative statues depicting mythological heroes, history and culture. Because marble was scarce, it was reserved for decoration, except in the grandest of buildings.
You may know the three main styles or “orders” of Greek columns: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Doric is the oldest, simplest, stoutest and the most used. Named after the Dorians of northern Greece, shafts are fluted and capitals (the decorative tops) are smooth, round and plain. Doric columns rest directly on the floor or platform although the Romans later added a base. The Parthenon is surrounded by Doric columns.
The Ionic order gets its name from Ionia, Anatolia (Turkey). These columns are the smallest and thinnest, and have a graceful proportion. They are easily identified by their volute capitals (think of scrolled ram’s horns) and do have pedestal bases. Our capitol in D.C. has Ionic columns.
The Corinthian column, associated with the city-state of Corinth, is the latest and most elaborate. Its capital is bell-shaped with rows of acanthus leaves and a highly decorative cornice. They can be seen in front of our Supreme Court.
The end of Greek influence and the emergence of the Roman Empire continue next time.