History: Ancient Greece

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Ancient Greece represents the fastest artistic revolution in human history. The development from small, abstract sculpture to realistic and idealized images with proportions modelling their philosophy of beauty happened in a little over 100 years, spurred in part by knowledge gained from Egypt. The geographic area that we will be discussing surrounds the Aegean Sea and is composed of a main peninsula called Macedonia and many smaller islands, the largest being Crete. As you can see from the satellite photo, the geographic area that makes up Greece borders closely with the ancient Persian empire and is a short distance over the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt.

This is an area defined by city-states, the development of democracy, philosophy, the Olympic games, and a mythology noted by Homer's classic epic and other legendary tales. In this section, we will look at the Greek peninsula and islands focusing on the prehistoric Aegean with the cultures of the Cyclides, Minoans, and Myceneans and their transition to the Greek empire which ends with the death of Cleopatra as the Roman Empire absorbs the great culture of the Greeks. For a general time line of the styles and iconic artifacts from this period, a great portrail was produced during the 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Athens:

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It is the goal of this lesson to:

  • Have a contextual understanding of the early civilizations, including the religion, surrounding the ancient Aegean Sea and the Greek Culture.
  • Have a formal understanding of various styles, media, and methods of artistic and architectural production.
  • Gain an understanding of various art historical themes that are present within these cultures.


Greek Timeline

The ancient Greek Herodotus was one of our first great historians, chronicling the Peloponnesian War. His work, among others that have survived time, provide historians with a fair, yet biased, account of the ancient Greek times. As the Greek language has survived to this day, their histories have been acknowledged by historians and formed many of our modern opinions of these times. In discussing the context of the period, we will begin by focusing on the ancient Greek city states and their shift toward a Greek empire following the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent expansion of the Greek nation under Alexander the Great. Also important to the understanding of Greek art is their religious mythology that captivates audiences to this day.

Early Greece, from 3000 BCE to 1200 BCE, was dominated by separated clans and city-states. Various Mycenean cultures such as the early Mycenaens on the mainland where the threat of invasion forced the culture to build monumental fortress structures to protect their societies. It is believed that the ancient King Agamemnon hand once ruled this civilization. On the large island of Crete, the Minoan culture flourished with connections to the ancient King Minos, thought to have ruled over a great Labyrinth containing the legendary Minotaur. Lastly, there is the area of the Cyclades, small islands in the Aegean Sea, where archaeologists find few fortified structures given the natural fortification of the Aegean Sea. Following the Peloponnesian War, Greek city-states came together under one formal civilization, the Hellenes, through alliances, a rough democratic system, and the ceremonial Olympic games in 776BCE. The Greek kingdom later expands following the conquests of Alexander the Great to include the entire Persian Empire and Egypt, though quickly splitting following the expansion to three separate kingdoms lead by Alexander the Great's former generals. After years of prosperity, the Hellenes eventually are absorbed by the growing Roman Empire in 30 BCE.

The concept of a democracy in Hellene culture was not as we know it today. Democracy was for the few, men who owned land. Slavery was regarded as natural and beneficial, and few females were recorded from this era. The democratic decisions were also often decided through military might and not necessarily through a democratic process.

The Greek religion was dominated by a pantheon of gods and goddesses that took the form of men and women. These gods were often described in stories as moving among mortal humans, but were often distinguished by their perfect bodies. This concept often led the culture into what has been described as the "cult of the body beautiful" as Protagoras described humanity and humans were the "Measure of all things." As "a sound mind in a sound body" became an important concept, there was an extreme interest in physical exercise balancing the physical with the intellectual as many famous philosophers also stem from this culture.

Further Reading:



The art of the Cycladic islands typically consists of small marble sculptures of human figures. They often resemble the early Venus of Willendorf sculpture that we have previously seen in that they generalize the proportions, and emphasize various elements of the human figure while diminishing others. It is believed that they were also painted stylistically as well to provide a more naturalistic connection. The importance of these figures is their precedent to later marble sculptures created under the Hellenic tradition. Please refer to the further reading: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

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The Minoan artifacts found throughout Crete, and specifically the Palace of Konossos, describe a civilization that had many traditions and a specific style marked by colorful design and sea inspired forms. This civilization also demonstrates early appreciation for athleticism and the concepts of beauty and proportion. For further reading, refer to: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

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Mycenaean artifacts demonstrate the power and constant threat of invasion that this culture faced. The land-connected geography, unlike the island cultures of the Cyclides and Minos, forced the development of large citadels and depictions of warriors and heroic feats. Demonstrations of power are found in the depictions of large lion forms, monumental bee-hive tombs, and the extravagance of funerary masks. For more information, please refer to: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

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Geometric and Orientalizing

The Geometric period in early Helenic art, sometimes called the "Dark Age of Greece," is demonstrated in the 8th century BCE with artistic artifacts that are dominated by ge0metric patterning and stylized human forms. To gain a broader understanding of this period, please refer to the Helibrunn Timeline's Article: "Geometric Art in Ancient Greece." The Greeks also had a fascination with the Orient, exotic elements that derive from foreign and fantastic influences. The Corinthians' inventions of new ceramic techniques allowed for the Helenaes to produce exquisitely decorated ceramic artifacts.

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Further Reading: Krater from the Metropolitan Museum of Art





The early artifacts from this era and style of art are often referred to as "Daedalic" based on the legend of Daedalus who apparently sculpted in Egypt, bringing the influence of Egyptian art, architecture, and technology to the Greeks. The Archaic period and style is noted for the larger, life-size sculptures, and the beginning of architectural temples modelling the concepts of the Doric order of proportion. Ceramic creation and decoration continues through this time as artists begin to develop more naturalistic styles and methods for depicting narrative.

Stylistically, the human form begins to become more naturalized, however there is still issues with anatomy and proportion. The facial features tend to remain stylized with almond eyes and what has been referred to as an "archaic smile" as many figures seem like they have smiling lips. With pediment sculptures, artists often diminish the scale of figures and other forms to meet the triangular composition. For more information, please read "Greek art in the Archaic Period" from the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

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Further Reading: Metropolitan Museum of Art Kuros On Kouros: Ancieng Greece.org

Early and High Classical

This period and style of Greek art begins with the Helenistic defeat of King Xerxes and the Persians in the naval battle at Salamis. Following this war, the Greek city states saw themselves as a different from the Asian "barbarians" and heralded the triumph of reason and law. The classical style demonstrates the artistic development toward ideals of proportion, order, and beauty. Figures begin to have a deep understanding of anatomical form, temples become more elegant and ordered as the builders become more familiar with technology and concepts of proportion, and a sense of naturalism and motion is developed within all artifacts. The development of Polykleitos' Doryphoros (Spear Bearer) is a great description of the methods of thinking that were involved in transitioning from the archaic toward the Classical era in Greek art. This transition also demonstrates the independence of the Greek states from other influences such as the Egyptians. For more on the topic please read "The Art of Classical Greece" from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

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The Parthenon and Athenian Acropolis

The temple complex labelled the Acropolis, or "city of the gods," demonstrates the highest of achievements of Classical Greek temple architecture. The complex mixes Doric and Ionic features with a strong understanding of visual proportion and concepts of visual perception. The complex lasted throughout many different religious occupations of Athens until a war between Venice and the Turks decided its fate. The Parthenon was destroyed after becoming a storage depot for ammunition that exploded, but not before Lord Elgin had removed many of the sculptures, taking them to London. For more information, please refer to the following articles and videos:

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Further Reading:

Late Classical

The Late Classical era was one of strife, political upheaval, plague, and still more pressure from Persia. The period ends with the assassination of Philip II and his succession by Alexander the Great who subsequently leads a campaign against Persia and conquers all of Persia, Egypt and Mesopotamia all the way to the Indus Valley. In the arts, Praxiteles introduces a more fluid depiction of motion with curvilinear stances that demonstrate an ease to the pose. Other artists such as Lysippos produce relaxed naturalism demonstrating both idealization and realism in the poses that they sculpt.

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The Hellenistic age follows Alexander the Great's conquests. Athens becomes a cultural center and the Greeks are left to pursue thought and art in an age of peace. The result is a progression of artistic form to heightened dramatic poses and increased story telling and naturalism. Clothing clings to the form as if wet and blown in the wind, and poses are exaggerated to make the static forms appear alive. For more on the Hellenistic age, please refer to the following article: "Intellectual Pursuits of the Hellenistic Age" from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

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Further Reading:


Idealizing Proportions

This topic was discussed at length in the "How Art Made the World" episode: " More Human than Human" (Link set to the part about Greece).

War and Conquest

Images such as the Battle of Issus depict actual battles. Other artifacts, such as the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon similarly describe the topic of conquest as it pays homage to the victory over the Gauls both directly and indirectly though the metaphoric depiction of the victory of the gods over the titans. Many of the artifacts that have survived from ancient Greece demonstrate the power of the empire and often the victories of one city-state over another or the entire Hellenic nation over their foes.

Collumns and Orders

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Further Reading: Classical Orders by Smarthistory.org

Vase Painting Techniques

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Further Reading:


Religion manifests itself throughout many of the artifacts that we see. Many of the subjects represent ancient gods, mythological stories, and temples that house the gods on Earth. Though there are many direct depictions to the religion, one must also not forget that the demonstration of perfection in the human form represents an extension of the belief that gods take on human form. Sculptures of athletes and other idealized human forms thus are extensions of this "cult of the body beautiful."

Death too has its place in Greek culture. Please read the following for more information on this topic: "Death, Burial, and Afterlife in Ancient Greek Art (Heilbrunn Timeline Essay)



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