ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE OF AKROTIRI
AKROTIRI: FIRST MARITIME REPUBLIC?
It has always been a well-known fact that the Cyclades from the Early Bronze Age on played the part of an intermediary between the Greek mainland, the island of Crete and Anatolia. But at the time of the Minoan and Mycenaean palaces the importance of the Cyclades seemed to decrease: to our mind, only the palace civilization seemed capable of large scale achievements. However, the excavations of Phylakopi and Kea should have warned us against underrating the importance of the Cycladic at that period, too!
It was due to the splendid excavations which the unforgettable great archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos carried out at Akrotiri (1), that we realized that we were dealing with a world of its own and of high importance. When talking about Akrotiri, Marinatos always refused to consider this town as simply Minoan. He preferred to accept it as a Cycladic site. But he himself detected a Libyan component within the population of the place, as well. And Mrs. Immerwahr, in her contribution to my Festschrift, rightly emphasized the great importance of a Mycenaean component within the population of Akrotiri (1877, 173 - 191).
I would like to say that the population stock of Thera was of Cycladic origin but was largely influenced by the Minoan civilization. At the same time, Thera became one of the most important representatives and exponents of the Minoan thalassocracy. But being a center of sea trade, Thera soon assumed the characteristic feature of an international harbor where the Mediterranean world met, from Mycenae up to Lybia.
It goes well with this nature of Thera that apparently there was no palace and, consequently, no princely dynasty. The art of fresco painting, as we know from the palaces of kings, always displays a conventional, normative and representative character: we know it from Knossos and from the Mycenaean palaces. In royal art, figural scenes always look as if they were performed on a stage.
The private sphere, as e.g. expressed by a portrait, made itself felt in Crete, and sometimes at Mycenae, too, but only on portraits seals. Frescoes in Minoan houses outside the palaces are very rare and, if they exist, they display the same conventional character as the court-art.
In Akrotiri things are completely different. Each Xesti-house is not a palace, but the residence of a patrician family. This is a very high class type of private house, and it is no wonder that, under these circumstances, a kind of private art came into flower. This was no conventional court art, because there was no court and no convention. Artists of various styles came together and, according to the various individual residences, they received different orders. From this follows the enormous variety of artistic individualism which we meet with, and also the tendency to emphasize the private character of the subject. In one house e.g. a patrician of Libyan origin had his portrait painted (Thera I, pl. B 4). In other houses they preferred scenes with flowers and animals (pl. 1). In the West House a fleet commander had his return painted, together with his fleet (pl. 2): you see him sitting in his cabin. He also had his bedroom decorated with paintings of the emblems of his captain's cabin (pl. 3). To this, he added the portrait of his little daughter. His two sons were painted on the walls of the parlour, coming home with their prey from fishing (pl. 4). In another palazzo we find the picture of two boys engaged in a fistfight (pl. 5): I am sure that this is a portrait of these boys. In the Xesti-House, which Marinatos excavated last, the ladies of the house had themselves painted in a garden scene: the little girl, the young lady, the lady of the house in the flower of her years, and the grandmother. These paintings are executed in an idealizing manner. The painters draws our attention to the age difference between the women, but at the same time we feel it was his intention to render portraits.
This variety of subjects no doubt corresponded to a great variety of individual painters. We find ourselves in a sphere where life's splendour was not concentrated in a princely court, but where several private residences of patricians participated in wealth and splendour and good taste.
From this we have to conclude that Akrotiri was not under a princely government but that it was a republic. Perhaps it was even in the interest of Knossos that there was no competing dynasty and no competing court-life at Thera. A number of patricians certainly seemed less dangerous. As long as they sailed to Crete and Knossos, they could enjoy their wealth and their seafaring competences. And, as it seems, the merchants from Thera liked to sail to Crete, because the dignity and grandeur of the Minos Kingdom gave them a strong material and moral backing. Hence those many Cretan imports in Thera, while there seems no strong interest in imports from the Greek mainland.
If my view is right, Akrotiri was one of the first republics within the Mediterranean world, perhaps within the whole civilized world. Theirs was the first sea-trading republic governed by patricians. Later on, there were Chalkis and Eretria, Corinth, Miletus, Carthage, Pisa, Genoa, Venice, but also Lübeck, Hamburg, Bremen.
All these places display the same social principle: sea trade somehow calls for free enterprise and generally for a free spirit. As soon as Athens, or the towns of the Netherlands, or London started their business overseas, they shook off the chains of convention. Against them, the states who were governed in a stricter dynastic sense were at a disadvantage. This was true for Sidon and Tyre as against the towns of the Greeks, and later on for Portugal, Spain and France as against Holland and England. Perhaps it was already the Minoan government of Crete who correctly estimated these connections between a liberal government and a successful appearance as a seafaring nation.
- (1). The Akrotiri material is excellently published and discussed by Marinatos (1968 - 1972 - 1974 - 1976). See also (idem 1973). My own interpretation of the excavations at Thera is published in (Schachermeyr 1976).
Written by: F. Schachermeyr
Lichtensteinstrasse 59, A1090 Vienna, Austria
Papers presented at the Second International Scientific Congress, Santorini, Greece, August 1978