The blank public facade presented by Classical houses may also have indicated the owner’s willingness to conform to an ethos of egalitarianism. Although from the late fifth century onwards there is evidence for an increasing amount of decoration inside houses, in the form of wall paintings, mosaics and columns (Walter-Karydi 1994; Westgate 1997-8), there is little or no evidence for decoration of the frontage – no columns or pediments framing doorways like those adorning grand Roman houses, no fancy window-frames or painted or moulded stucco (Walter-Karydi 1994: 27-31). Even in the richest surviving Classical houses, at Eretria, embellishments like lion-head gutter-spouts and miniature columns framing windows were apparently confined to the interior (Ducrey et al. 1993: 68;


Figure 3 Classical courtyard houses, a: Athens, Houses C and D near the Great Drain, fifth century bc (American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Agora Excavations); b: Athens, houses on the north slope of the Areiopagos, conjectural restoration of late fourth-century state (American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Agora Excavations); c: Halieis, House 7, fourth century BC (after Ault 2005: fig. 7); d: Halieis, House A, fourth century BC (after Ault 2005: fig. 10).



Figure 4 Olynthos, grid-planned houses on the North Hill, late fifth or early fourth century BC (courtesy N. Cahill). Reber 1998: 125). From the outside, there was little to distinguish a wealthy house from a poor one, and it seems likely that this was the result of a prejudice against projecting economic distinctions between households, which is apparent in repeated rhetorical appeals to the great men of the past, whose houses were ‘no more splendid than those of their neighbours’ (Demosthenes 3.25-6, 13.29-30, 23.206-8). The interior, however, was a different matter, and some households may have found a subtle way round the pressure against external display: it is generally thought that the elaborately decorated dining  rooms found in some Classical houses are located adjacent to the street so that they could be lit by windows in the outside wall (e.g. Fig. 3c; Fig. 4, houses Al, A6, A.viii.l, A.vii.4 and several in block; Robinson and Graham 1938: 177-9), but dinner parties went on into the night, and it is tempting to wonder whether it was just as important to make the light and noise obvious to passers-by.

The way in which the house advertised the occupants’ subscription to corporate ideals may be usefully understood in terms of Hillier and Hanson’s (1984: 144-5, 158-63) concept of ‘transpatial solidarity’, in which membership of a class is expressed by the reproduction of a standard spatial pattern inside the house, combined with strong enforcement of the boundary between the house and the exterior, which limits the potential for casual interaction with people nearby; in contrast, ‘spatial solidarity’ is based on proximity, and is fostered by weaker boundary controls and a relatively unstructured interior, which permit free interaction between inhabitants and neighbours. Hillier and Hanson cite as a example of spatial solidarity the traditional British working-class house, with the front door standing open, while transpatial solidarity is represented by the middle-class house, whose interior, revealed at night like a stage set through uncurtained windows, is accessible only to invited visitors. In the light of this, the development of the courtyard house in Greece might be seen as reflecting a shift from spatial to transpatial solidarity as the basis of society.

The unstructured interiors and weak boundaries of Early Iron Age houses are likely to have fostered spatial solidarity between neighbouring house- holds, which may have complemented personal connections such as kinship or patronage: in the Cretan village of Vronda, for instance, each cluster of houses evolved from a single original house, and Kevin Glowacki (in press) suggests that they were occupied by families descended from the same household; similarly, there have been attempts to recognize kin groups in the arrangement of the houses at Zagora (Cambitoglou et al. 1971: 29-30; Coucouzeli 2004: 473-6). On the other hand, the compartmentalized interiors and strongly controlled boundaries of Classical houses proclaim the occupants’ adherence to the ideals of propriety and independence associated with citizenship, and thus their claim to membership of the citizen class. The grid plans adopted in some Classical cities (such as Olynthos: Fig. 4) could be seen as taking transpatial solidarity to an extreme, subordinating households to an entirely abstract pattern in which each is theoretically interchangeable, in order to demonstrate the rejection of personal ties between households which might threaten the solidarity and equality of the citizen group – though this doubtless represents the ideal of the planners rather than the reality, as the presence of clusters of similar houses at Olynthos suggests that it was still possible for households to organize themselves into groups of some sort (Cahill 2002: 209-22).


It would be problematic to suggest that courtyard houses can be interpreted as evidence for egalitarian ideals wherever they occur, although Blanton (1998: 168) cites similar examples from Mexico and China. There are other possible reasons for the choice of this type of house, which are not mutually exclusive. Climate is an important factor, though not a determining one, as Rapoport (1969: esp. 18-24) has demonstrated, and the  courtyard allows houses to be packed efficiently into limited space without depriving them of light and air (Mazarakis Ainian 2001). Fletcher (1995: 135) has identified courtyard houses as a common feature of early urban communities because they insulate the household from the outside world, restricting the flow of visual and auditory infor- mation in order to reduce the stress of living in a densely populated settlement.

All of these factors are likely to have encouraged the adoption of the courtyard house in the growing towns of Archaic Greece, but the development of domestic architecture is shaped by the interplay between such universal practical needs and particular symbolic or ideological requirements, and thus similar architectural forms may have different meanings in different societies. In the case of Archaic and Classical Greece, literary evidence provides the context for an interpretation of the courtyard house as the architectural manifestation of a ‘corporate’ power strategy which promoted equality of access to political power by investing each man with authority as head of an independent household. Both the internal layout of the house and its outward appearance reflected his proper observation of moral codes, which determined his suitability to participate in the political community. Associating the courtyard house with the ideal of equal access to power within a bounded citizen group – of whatever size – overcomes one of the major criticisms levelled at Hoepfner and Schwandner’s (1994) theory that the equal size and repetitive plans of houses in Classical grid-planned cities were the expression of democratic ideology, namely that not all planned cities were democracies, and conversely that there is no evidence for an egalitarian housing policy in the most radical democracy of all, Athens: the houses in Figure 3a and 3b show considerable variation in size and elaboration, and the smaller ones are by no means the smallest known (Ferrucci 1996; Cahill 2002: 194-222; Shipley 2005: 368-73).

Moreover, if the plan and appearance of the house were intended to advertise the occupants’ adherence to shared moral and political values and thus their claim to a share of power, the basic similarity of house plans both within and between cities can be explained as the product of individual choice on the part of the owners, without resorting to the assumption that the internal layout of houses was somehow dictated by a central authority. This is not to suggest, however, that only citizens lived in courtyard houses: resident foreigners (metics), many of whom were citizens of other poleis, may well have subscribed to the same ideals as the citizens and lived in the same type of house (the Syracusan immigrant Kephalos, for instance, lived in a courtyard house in Piraeus: Plato, Republic 328c). Conversely, no doubt many citizens had to make do with houses that diverged from the ideal, which may often go undetected in the archaeological record because they do not correspond to the ‘normal’ courtyard pattern. But it is striking that the courtyard house is less prevalent in Crete, where the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the household were compromised by communal provision of food and education. Classical and early Hellenistic houses at some Cretan sites, such as Lato, resemble the more open and unstructured houses of the Early Iron Age (Westgate forthcoming), and the political authority of the head of the household seems to have been more limited: controls on the exercise of intermember power in Cretan poleis were notoriously weak (Aristotle, Politics 1272b.2-15).

In contrast, in other parts of Greece, the enclosed, self-contained courtyard house can be seen as the embodiment of the ideal of the household as a semi-autonomous,self-sufficient unit under the control of the citizen male, who thus gained the authority to participate as an equal in the political community.


This paper forms part of the project ‘Strategies, Structures and Ideologies of the Built Environment’, directed by Nick Fisher and James Whitley at Cardiff University and funded by the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Board. I would like to thank Nick Fisher and Robin Osborne for their comments on earlier drafts, and Howard Mason, Ian Dennis and Nicholas Cahill for producing the illustrations. Cardiff School of History and Archaeology, Cardiff University , Cardiff, CF10 3EU







Ruth Westgate

Ruth Westgate is Lecturer in Archaeology and Ancient History at Cardiff University. Her research focuses on the social, political and economic aspects of Greek and Roman domestic architecture and interior decoration, and she has recently co-edited a conference volume exploring these themes, Building Communities: House, Settlement and Society in the Aegean and Beyond (British School at Athens, in press).

SOURCE   World Archaeology Vol. 39(2): 229-245 The Archaeology of Equality
© 2007 Taylor & Francis


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