Classical Greece, often referred to as the high point of Greek civilization, is characterized by creativity in the arts, literature, and philosophy (Levack, Muir, Maas, & Veldman, 2007). The central feature of Classical Greece was the emergence of Athens as the central polis and the pursuit of democracy by Athens. From the culture of Classical Greece comes the birth of history from the Greek word historia (which means investigation or research).
According to classicist C. M. Bowra, the Greek left behind
“monuments ever bequeathed by one civilization to another. But it is not mostly for these that the legacy of Greece is great. It is, rather, because of the spirit they evoke, a spirit rooted in the belief that man is a free, indeed an exalted, being. For thousands of years older civilizations—Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian—thought of man as a despised figure who groveled before deities and despots. The Greeks picked man up and set him on his feet.” (Bowra, 1965, p. 18)
There are many battles in Greek history but only one set the Greeks on the path to a cultural revolution like never see before. When the Persian wars finally came to a conclusion the Athenians returned to Athens to find their beloved city divested. At first they “initially vowed to keep the Acropolis in a state of ruin as a reminder of the horrible price of war” but the former General and statesman Pericles convinced them otherwise. (Sayre, 2013, p. 58) This decision would usher in what has come to be known as the “Golden Age of Athens”. Under Pericles’s direction the city will promote new idea in architecture, sculpture, literature, dance, music, and even government.
Architecture, Sculpture and Pottery
To the Greeks, all things must be enjoyed in moderation, but this does not mean the Greeks did not have a strong taste for beauty. Architecturally, they gave us the Doric and Ionic orders, which have function as well as elegance and are still used. They also created the more elaborate column order known as Corinthian. Each of the orders is named after the Greek town/people that created the order. The major difference between each order can be quickly determined by looking at the base and capital, see below image.
Fig. 1 The Classical Orders of Greek architecture, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. (Sayre, 2013, p. 53)
There are simple stylistic differences between each order with the Doric being the oldest and simplest; there is no true pediment or capital.
Fig. 2 Doric columns at the Temple of Hera I, ca. 540. (Sayer, 2013, p. 52)
The Ionic order is most commonly used on administration building, even today. They are recognizable due to their scroll capital and base pediment.
Fig. 3 Ionic column. (Sayre, 2008)
The Corinthian order is the most elaborate and expensive to create with capitals terminating in flowers and acanthus leaves.
Fig. 4 Corinthian capital from Tholos, Epidaurus, 4th century BCE (Sayre, 2013, p. 53)
Along with developments in architecture, the Greeks perfected sculpture with an almost-obsessive desire to show human perfection. The way the Greeks celebrate the human body was unique. In particular, the male body was “celebrated in a widespread of genre of sculpture known as kourus, meaning “young man”. (Sayre, 2013, p.54)
Fig. 5 Anavysos Kouros, from Anavysps cemetery, near Athens, ca, 525 BCE.
In fact “no other Mediterranean culture so emphasized the depiction of the male body” like the Greeks did. In the 6th century before the common era (or BCE) alone they created 20,000 male nude statues. At first this may seem as if the Greeks had an odd obsession with male nudity but the statures are primarily “found in sanctuaries and cemeteries, most often serving as votive offerings to the gods or as commemorative grave markers.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 54) They enjoyed showing the beauty of the human form in nudes with a combination of realism and idealism.
The statue Kritian Boy, attributed the sculpture Kritios, is the image most known for being absolutely realistic in its depiction of the human body with “subtle equilibrium of line and axis which is to be the basis of classical art” because it has “delicate balance of movement.” (Clark, 1956)
Fig. 6 Kritios Boy, from Acropolis, Athens. Ca. 480BCE (Sayre, 2013, p. 62)
However, this style of naturally depicting of the human body as it is will not last long. Within a few years of its creation artists no longer made realistic images of the human body. Instead the artists Polyclitus will create a new system of “beauty realized in great detail, right down to the veins on the back of the hand.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 63) All of this “reflects a higher mathematical order and embodies the ideal harmony between the natural world and the intellectual or spiritual realm.” (sayre, 2013, p. 63)
Fig. 7 Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), Roman copy after the original bronze by Polyclitus, ca. 450-440BCE. (Sayre, 2013)
In later years, the idea of the male nude body become ever increasingly unrealistic in order to emphasize the perfect male body, which was modeled after the gods. Since, the human male body was modeled after the gods all sculptural depictions of the body had to be perfect in form.
Fig. 8. Discus Thrower, Myron, ca. 450 BCE. Roman marble copy after the bronze original, life-size. (Sporre, 2005, p. 88)
Sometime around the 6th century BCE Athens becomes a major center for making pottery. As with Athenian sculpture, “the decorations on Athenian vases grew increasingly naturalistic and detailed until” each side of the vase was filled with a scene. (Sayre, 2013, p. 56) In many of the pottery scenes the artist is depicting various stories of their gods and heroes.
Fig. 9 Euphronius (painter) and Euxitheos (painter), Death of Sarpedon. Ca. 515 BCE. (Sayre, 2013, p. 56)
While the scene in Death of Sarpedon appears quite natural this is not the reason for its appeal to our emotions. Instead, it is valued for “its perfectly balanced composition” because tragedy of death is transformed “into a rare depiction of death as an instance of dignity and order.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 56)
Drama, Music, and Literature
The Greeks invented drama. Many tragedies and comedies, such as Euripides’ Medeaor and Aristophanes’ The Cloudsare, are as compelling today as they were when they were written. In order to understand Greek theater, however, the view must have a good imagination. Today we think of theater as a form of entertainment but during Greek times “theater was a vehicle for communal expression of religious belief that employed music, dance, and drama.” (Sporre, 2005, p. 98)
Fig. 10 Statuette of a veiled dancer, ca. 225-175 BCE. (Sporre, 2005, 105)
Theater was such an integral part of Greek life that three annual religious festivals took place in different city. Contests were held at the festival, where playwright 3 winners were chosen for production. Once the three winners were decided “the playwright was assigned the chief actor and the patron who paid all the expenses for the production.” (Sporre, 2005, p. 99) The winner (or author) of the play was then be the “director, choreographer, and musical composer, and often played the leading role as well.” (Sporre, 2005, p. 99)
“Pythagoras taught that an understanding of numbers provided the key to an understanding of the spiritual and [physical universe.” (Sporre, 2005, p. 105) As a result, musical divisions derived by Pythagoras are still used today. Even without studying Greek philosophy one can realize the affect music can have on the human emotions.
Early Greek literature had several epics. An epic is a long poem where characters are typically high born and experience a series of adventures. The hero may have human faults, but he must possess superhuman courage and strength as well as greatness of character. The adventures of epics may involve great wars, battles, fighting monsters, and deities who often play a role in the epic. The action, however, cannot be gratuitous: they “must be important ones in the history of the rave and the hero must be in some sense a savior of that nation or race. Thus the hero is not only a great individual but a cultural hero” (Witt, M. et al., 1997, p. 71).
The epics Iliad and Odyssey mark the beginning of Greek poetry. The original purpose of an epic was to “sing the famous deeds of men” and to teach people in a pleasurable way about the great heroes of their culture” (Witt, M. et al., 1997, p. 71). Historians call the author of these works Homer, but they know nothing about him. Early Greeks believed he was blind, and scholars believe he lived in Iona, located in Asia Minor, not Greece, but none of this is proven fact.
The Ideal of Man
For the Greeks, participating in war was the supreme test of a man, and while “headlong bravery was the least that was expected of Greek fighters…style in war was particularly admired” (Bowra, 1965, p. 22). The Greeks also admired the individual and gave equal respect to both mental and physical prowess. The Riace Warrior (see below image) has been considered idealized the Greek male figure.
Fig. 11 Riace Warrior,5th century BCE, bronze with bone, silver, and copper inlaid. (Sporre, 2005, p. 90)
While the image is completely unrealistic it still embodies what the Greeks thought was the perfect male body. A ‘complete’ individual would be an active athlete, a philosopher, a judge, and a poet and would pursue anything else worthy of pursuit. The Olympics exalted athletics but prizes were also given to the best musicians, dancers, and poets while festivals for Dionysus focused on drama.
This remarkable culture gave the world a new kind of government: democracy. They prized law and order, held a passion for freedom, and abhorred corruption.
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is not in the hands of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not the membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. (Murphy, Katula, Hill, & Ochs, 2003, p. 242)
The “Golden Age of Greece” saw much advancement in art, architecture, sculpture, literature, dance, music, and government. All of the cultural advancements were pure ingenuity on the part of those who lived within the society. Every member of classical Greek society was propelled to push the limits of creativity and human understanding further than it had even been before. Even the “Athenians realized the excellence of their sculptures” since they were actively striving to create images more naturalistic with “an increasingly perfect sense of proportion.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 77)
Bowra, C. M. (1965). Classical Greece. New York: Time.
Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, 1956:61.
Murphy, J. J., Katula, R. A., Hill, F. I., & Ochs, D. J. (2003). A synoptic history of classical rhetoric (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.
Sporre, D. J. (2005). The creative impluse, an introduction to the arts. (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.
Witt, M. F., Brown, C. V., Dunbar, R. A., Tirro, F., & Witt, R. G. (1997). The humanities: Cultural roots and continuities (5th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.