The ancient Greeks were not a unified nation as modern Greece is today, but were made up of a series of city-states, called polies (sing. polis) that shared a common language, religion, and cultural heritage. After the 8th century BCE, there was a return of writing; the establishment of the Olympic Games at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia (776 BCE); and an increasing technical sophistication in the arts. The 5th century BCE philosopher Protagoras, pictured above, is credited with the phrase “man is the measure of all things,” which refers to the central position Greek gave themselves in the world, referring to the shrine to Apollo and oracle at Delphi as the ompahlos, the navel of the world. For the Greeks, all non-Greek people were barbarians, which was a reference by the Greeks to the way they heard the languages spoken by others. They said it sounded like other were saying “bar-bar” over and over. Greeks also conceived of their gods as having human-like forms and characteristics, including moral flaws.
In art, the Greeks tended to emphasize the individual, creating sculptural representations of athletes, cultural heroes, and honored dead, as well as themselves, often as offerings to the gods. This art moved rapidly from stylized and abstracted to naturalistic and idealized. The canons of art put forward in Greece were related to naturalism, human scale, and the idea of the “fit body and keen mind,” a reference to the importance of athletics and the study of rhetoric. The Greeks also believed in maintaining control of emotions in public, resulting in stoic images in the art. Artists also enjoyed a high status within Greek communities, and philosophers like Plato and Aristotle debated the place of art.
Many of the city-states of ancient Greece were against tyrannical rule, although many were ruled by despots and kings. Athens in the late 6th century BCE began an experiment with democracy, where all free-born men of Athenian parents gained the right to vote on issues, serve on juries, and assist in making decisions for the city-state. Although formed on the principle of mob rule, and not open to all citizens (women were distinctly excluded), this was the first experiment with any government of this sort, and would have long-lasting impact, through the 18th century Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions to 21st century democracies. There were even statues made honoring the Tyrannicides, 6th century Athenian men believed to have murdered the tyrant Hippias.The first major artistic style in Greece after the Mycenaean period is the Geometric style (c. 1000-700 BCE), named for the designs on pottery found in cemeteries of this period, with rectilinear patterns and geometric shapes. The pots have registers, or bands, of designs going around the body, often with funerary scenes, such as on the Dipylon amphora below. The Geometric style bronze sculpture of the 8th century also shows abstraction of forms based on geometric shapes, and the works are very small in size.
In the 7th century, the Greek poleis began to have more contact with the Near East and Egypt, resulting in changes to the art being produced. The Orientalizing Style of this period demonstrated these outside influences with more sinuous, curvilinear shapes and human bodies that reflected the style of the Near East and the static nature of the Egyptian human forms. This is also the period when stone temples begin to be built in Greece. These structures also reflect Egyptian-style buildings and art.
Temple at at Prinias, Crete, c. 625 BCE
Even within this heavily stylized art, with the obvious outside influence, there were assertions of independence. The lions carved along the approach to the sanctuary at Delos, believed to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, pictured below, are carved in the Egyptian style, yet only from 1 block of marble with open spaces and obvious musculature.Terrace of the Lions at Delos, late 7th century (photo by By User:Ggia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Archaic Style of the 6th century was, although still influenced by Egyptian art, a distinctly Greek style. This is also the period in which the Greek architectural orders were developed as a means to build standardized temples in the peripteral manner, or having a colonnade around the entire structure. The oldest of these orders was the Doric order, said by Vitruvius in the 1st century to be a masculine style. The temple of Apollo from Corinth, pictured below follows the Greek rules of architecture as it is peripteral and built in the Doric order.
The Archaic Greek temple plan and diagram of the Greek orders
Temple of Apollo at Corinth, c. 580-540 BCE (photo by By Ixnay (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Siphnian Treasury reconstruction and frieze detail, Delphi, c. 530-525 BCE
The Archaic Siphnian Treasury at the site of Delphi, famous for its oracle of Apollo is more Ionic in style, with caryatid (female) support columns and a continuous upper frieze showing the Gigantomachy, or the victory of the Olympian gods over the Titans and the Giants sent to restore the rule of the Titans, a Greek code for the victory of the civilized Greeks over barbarians, or non-Greeks.
Greek sculpture in this period also shifts to an emphasis on the individual, and the sculptures that are known from this period often represent young men. These Kouros sculptures were made as votive statues, offerings to the gods, or as commemorative statues, either in temple precincts to represent victory in athletic contests or battle or in cemeteries to honor the dead. There is a female version, called kore (pl. korai), that were created for the same reasons, although some korai figures may represent goddesses, such as the Peplos Kore, pictured below, that was found on the Acropolis in Athens. These figures are always shown in a frontal pose, with one foot forward that is very similar to Egyptian ka statues, and they typically have the small “Archaic smile” on their faces. As with the reconstructed image of the Peplos Kore, all of these images would have been painted when first completed.
One of the artistic styles that starts to shift in the late Archaic or Early Classical period in Greece is that of pottery painting. The city-state of Corinth had been the center of this art, but near the end of the 6th century, Athens becomes the center of production, and painted ceramics from Athens have been found throughout the Mediterranean. They seem to have been especially sought after in the Etruscan city-states. The Athenian pottery painters signed their works, and developed the black-figure style. The potters also incised detail lines through their paint to expose clay beneath, and give more depth to their scenes, which were often either mythological or drawn from Homeric epics and every day life. The painters also often used white slip for the female figures, as in the example below with a scene of Achilles killing Penthesilea. The black-figure style gave way to the red-figure style in the Early Classical period, which flipped the positive and negative, with the black paint making up the background. These pieces, such as the Niobid Vase below, often have attempts at landscape as well.
The style of Early Classical sculpture also started to shift to more naturalism. The Kritios Boy, a marble kouros figure from c. 480 BCE shows the beginnings of contrapposto, the s-shaped weight shifting stance meant to show movement and increasing naturalism. This increasing naturalism can also be seen in some of the remaining cast bronze sculptures from the period, including the Charioteer from Delphi (478-474 BCE) and the Riace Warriors (c. 450 BCE). All of the bronze statues also show the technical and artistic sophistication of the Greeks, with the thin castings joined carefully together after being cast in sections. They also have inlaid eyes of other materials to give a more life-like appearance, and would have included props like the reigns of the chariot (he was also once part of an entire chariot group), shields, and spears.
By the High Classical Period in Greece, Athens was dominant both artistically and on the seas with their Navy and as leaders of the Delian League. After the sack of Athens and the Acropolis by the Persians in 489 BCE, and their subsequent defeat, Athens was able to consolidate control of the League until it was a virtual empire for Athens. After the League treasury was moved from Delos to Athens, the politician Pericles was able to convince the Athenians that they should use the funds to rebuild the temples on the Acropolis.
Between 448 & 432 BCE, Iktinos and Kallikrates rebuilt the great temple to Athena Parthenos, the Parthenon. The temple was rebuilt according to Greek ideals of perfection, including the Golden Mean, with everything in a relation of 4:9. The temple is Doric, but has a continuous Ionic frieze along the inner walls, and gives the illusion of perfection, with columns at the corners closer together than those at the center; entasis, or slight swelling, at the center of all columns; and a slight dip at the center of the stylobate, the supporting steps. Iktinos and Kallikrates, Parthenon, Athens, 448-432 BCE (photo by By DJDunsie (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
The East Pediment sculptures told the story of Athena’s birth from her father Zeus’s head, and the Doric frieze was made up of metopes and triglyphs. The metopes all told stories of Greek victories from mythology, which were meant to reference the Greek victory over the Persians in 489 BCE. On the east was the Gigatomachy, on the south the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs, on the west was the Amazonomachy, and on the north was a series showing the Greeks warring with the Trojans, or the Sack of Troy, the Illuspersis. Most of the sculptures were completed by the famous sculptor Phidias and his workshop.
Phidias, East Pediment sculptures and reconstruction
The Ionic frieze on the inner wall showed a procession, possibly the Panathenaic Festival, a festival held every 2 years to bring a new peplos, or garment, to the goddess. But, there is some dispute about this, with some scholars arguing that the frieze shows an ancient king’s sacrifice of his daughter or possibly another scene. Either way, the frieze was meant to be seen from below, and so is carved more shallowly at the bottom. Also, all of the heads are isocephalic, which means that they are all at the same level.
Phidias, Panathenaic (?) Frieze, Parthenon, c. 438-432 BCE
Phidias also sculpted the great cryselephantine sculpture of Athena that was housed inside of the temple, and was said to be about 40 feet tall. A Roman marble copy of the sculpture survives to give a sense of what this looked like, and there was a frieze along the base that showed the Greek victory over the Persians.
There were a number of other buildings rebuilt in this period on the Acropolis, although not all were completed due to Athens engagement and ultimate defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Kallikrates was said to have build the small temple of Athena Nike just inside the Propylaea, or gateway, which was a pseudoperpteral temple built in the Ionic style between c. 427 and 424 BCE. Some of the sculpture from the balustrade shows the shift to the Late Classical style, including the relief below of Nike adjusting her sandal, where the body of the goddess is revealed by her wet drapery. Another of the temples, this one built by Mnesikles and dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, possibly as well as other gods and demi-gods, was the Erechtheion, built between 421 and 407 BCE. This temple marked the site of the mythological battle between Athena and Poseidon for the title of protector of the city of Athens, and was constructed in such a way as to conform to uneven land, and protect the spring of Poseidon and the olive tree of Athena. The roof of the south porch is held up with caryatids that are more graceful and naturalistic than the caryatids from the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi.
Sculpture in the High Classical period also reflected the emphasis on naturalism, as seen in the sculptures by Phidias on the Parthenon. It is in this period that Polykleitos wrote the Canon of Greek art, only fragments of which survive today. This canon, as exemplified by the Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), Roman copies of the bronze original are all that survive, showed the ideal proportions of the human figure, as well as the idea of control over one’s emotions. This shows the Greek move slightly beyond naturalism into an idealized abstraction.
Sculpture of the Late Classical period ushered in an ideal of female beauty, as the the Aphrodite of Cnidos by Praxiteles, originally sculpted c. 350-340 BCE, and famed for its beauty. It is also in this period that sculptors began to depict more emotions in their works, as with the Weary Herakles by Lysippos, the bronze original sculpted c. 350 BCE, but, as with the Praxiteles’s work, only Roman copies remain.
Lysippos, Weary Herakles, Roman copy of a Greek Bronze original of c. 350 BCE
The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE ushered in a period of Greek art that is referred to as Hellenistic because of the spread of Greek art and culture throughout the Mediterranean. Sculpture becomes very emotional, with a focus on poor and injured people in addition to the usual images of gods, such as in the bronze image of a seated boxer, possibly by Apollonios of Athens and dated to the third century BCE. This is often referred to as the Baroque period of Greek art for the emotion and tragedy depicted in works like the Laocoön, which again survives as a Roman copy of the Greek original by Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athanadoros of Rhodes. Much of the shift in this period is related to the rise of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, and its emphasis on fate being unavoidable.
Even architecture became larger and more dramatic in this period, which witnessed the rise of Roman as an empire, and the slow absorption of the Hellenistic world into that empire. One of the great pieces from this period is the Great Altar of Zeus from Pergamon, built for King Eumenes II of the Attalid Dynasty of Pergamon between c. 166 & 156 BCE. The frieze on this outdoor altar, now in the Altes Museum in Berlin, is much more animated than the frieze from the Parthenon, and depicts the Gigantomachy, this time a reference to the victory of King Eumenes over the Gauls who had invaded Pergamon.
Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon and Frieze Detail of Athena and Nike fight Alkyoneus (left), Gaia rises up from the ground (right), c. 166-156 BCE