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Ancient Greek Art

By: Editors

Updated: June 23, 2023 | Original: May 17, 2010

Athena presides over the voting for the award of the arms of Achilles, c. 490 BC. Found in the collection of the Art History Museum, Vienne. Artist Duris (Douris), (Vase painter) (ca. 505-465 BC). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In around 450 B.C., the Athenian general Pericles tried to consolidate his power by using public money, the dues paid to Athens by its allies in the Delian League coalition, to support the city-state’s artists and thinkers. Most of all, Pericles paid artisans to build temples and other public buildings in the city of Athens. He reasoned that this way he could win the support of the Athenian people by doling out plenty of construction jobs while building public monuments so grand that people would come from far and wide to see them, increasing Athens’ prestige as well as his own.

The Architecture of Classical Greece

The most noteworthy result of Pericles’ public-works campaign was the magnificent Parthenon , a temple in honor of the city’s patron goddess Athena. The architects Iktinos and Kallikrates and the sculptor Phidias began work on the temple in the middle of the 5th century B.C. The Parthenon was built atop the Acropolis , a natural pedestal made of rock that was the site of the earliest settlements in Athens, and Pericles invited other people to build there as well: In 437 B.C., for example, the architect Mnesikles started to build a grand gateway known as the Propylaia at its western end, and at the end of the century, artisans added a smaller temple for the Greek goddess Athena—this one in honor of her role as the goddess of victory, Athena Nike—along with one for Athena and Erechtheus, an Athenian king. Still, the Parthenon remained the site’s main attraction.

Did you know? Many of the sculptures from the Parthenon are on display at the British Museum in London. They are known as the Elgin Marbles.

Greek Temple Architecture

With its rectangular stone platform, front and back porches (the pronaos and the opisthodomos) and rows of columns, the Parthenon was a commanding example of Greek temple architecture. Typically, the people of ancient Greece did not worship inside their temples as we do today. Instead, the interior room (the naos or the cella) was relatively small, housing just a statue of the deity the temple was built to honor. Worshippers gathered outside, entering only to bring offerings to the statue.

The temples of classical Greece all shared the same general form: Rows of columns supporting a horizontal entablature (a kind of decorative molding) and a triangular roof. At each end of the roof, above the entablature, was a triangular space known as the pediment, into which sculptors squeezed elaborate scenes. On the Parthenon, for example, the pediment sculptures show the birth of Athena on one end and a battle between Athena and Poseidon on the other.

So that people standing on the ground could see them, these pediment sculptures were usually painted bright colors and were arrayed on a solid blue or red background. This paint has faded with age; as a result, the pieces of classical temples that survive today appear to be made of white marble alone.

Proportion and Perspective

The architects of classical Greece came up with many sophisticated techniques to make their buildings look perfectly even. They crafted horizontal planes with a very slight upward U-shape and columns that were fatter in the middle than at the ends. Without these innovations, the buildings would appear to sag; with them, they looked flawless and majestic.

Ancient Greek Sculpture

Not many classical statues or sculptures survive today. Stone statues broke easily, and metal ones were often melted for re-use. However, we know that Greek sculptors such as Phidias and Polykleitos in the 5th century and Praxiteles, Skopas and Lysippos in the 4th century had figured out how to apply the rules of anatomy and perspective to the human form just as their counterparts applied them to buildings. Earlier statues of people had looked awkward and fake, but by the classical period they looked natural, almost at ease. They even had realistic-looking facial expressions.

One of the most celebrated Greek sculptures is the Venus de Milo , carved in 100 B.C. during the Hellenistic Age by the little-known Alexandros of Antioch. She was discovered in 1820 on the island of Melos.

Ancient Greek Pottery

Classical Greek pottery was perhaps the most utilitarian of the era’s art forms. People offered small terra cotta figurines as gifts to gods and goddesses, buried them with the dead and gave them to their children as toys. They also used clay pots, jars and vases for almost everything. These were painted with religious or mythological scenes that, like the era’s statues, grew more sophisticated and realistic over time.

Much of our knowledge of classical Greek art comes from objects made of stone and clay that have survived for thousands of years. However, we can infer that the themes we see in these works–an emphasis on pattern and order, perspective and proportion and man himself–appeared as well in less-durable creations such as ancient Greek paintings and drawings.

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Greek Art – Gems in Ancient Greek Art History

Avatar for Isabella Meyer

Greek art has remained a source of artistic inspiration since 650 BCE , which boasts many centuries’ worth of incredible developments in sculpture and pottery. From red-figure pottery to figurative vase paintings, the history of ancient Greek art is rich with cultural and socio-economic events that provide historians with vast insight into the life and art of Greek culture. In this article, we will explore the many unique gems of the Greek art world through the complex art forms of each art period in the ancient world. Read on for more about the history of Greek art and its many iconic contributions to art!   

Table of Contents

  • 1 A Little Bit About Hellas
  • 2.1 The Stone Age
  • 2.2 Into the Bronze Age of Greece – The Aegean Civilizations
  • 3 The Greek Dark Ages and the Start of Greek Civilization
  • 4.1 The Archaic Period (c. 650 – 480 BCE)
  • 4.2.1 Classical Greek Sculpture
  • 4.2.2 Classical Greek Architecture
  • 4.3.1 Hellenistic Greek Sculpture
  • 4.3.2 Hellenistic Greek Architecture
  • 5 To Rome and Beyond
  • 6.1 What Were the Different Periods in Greek Art?
  • 6.2 What Does Classical Order Mean in Greek Art?
  • 6.3 What Are Some Greek Art Characteristics?
  • 6.4 Which Museum Has the Largest Collection of Greek Art?

A Little Bit About Hellas

Before we dive into the extensive history of ancient Greek art, let us explore the magnitude of the location with which we are engaging, namely, Greece. When we think of Greece, or Hellas , which it was previously known as, we immediately know more-or-less the impact that this ancient civilization had on shaping the art forms of many Western civilizations.     

Greece is a bustling geographic hotspot on the world map, which is located in Southeast Europe. The country is divided into nine regions, namely the Aegean Islands, Central Greece, Crete, Epirus, Ionian Islands, Macedonia, Peloponnese, Thessaly, and Thrace. It is also located near to where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge and borders Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

The seas that surround Greece include the Aegean sea (this is towards the East of the mainland), the Ionian sea (towards the West), and the Cretan and Mediterranean seas (towards the South). There are also numerous islands surrounding Greece.

Map for Greek Artwork

We also know the famous Mount Olympus, which is Greece’s highest mountain with Mytikas, its highest peak, at 9,570 feet. Olympus is worth noting as it holds an important place within Greek mythology, existing as the residence of the gods with Zeus on the throne. Greece is also widely considered as the “cradle” or “birthplace” of Western civilization and is recognized as the birthplace of various cultural and political doctrines such as democracy and philosophy. It also explored and developed various principles related to mathematics and science. In culture, it set the stage for drama, art, architecture, pottery, sculpture, and literature, and in sports, the Olympic Games, which is still ongoing in our present day and age.

Historical Foundations: What Are the Origins of Ancient Greece?

The best way to understand the historical foundations of ancient Greece is to look at its various periods throughout its development as a civilization, as there are numerous timeframes and stages of progression. Notably, Greece goes back all the way to prehistory with the Stone Age, which ended around 3,200 BCE, and then into the Bronze Age, which started around 3,200 BCE.

The Stone Age

The Stone Ages were divided into three distinct periods, namely, the earliest, Paleolithic, followed by the Mesolithic, and then the last, the Neolithic. During the Neolithic Greek Age (7000-3200BCE), there was an increased development of farming and stockbreeding, as well as new advances in architecture and various tools used.

The Neolithic Greek Age was further divided into six stages, namely, Aceramic (Pre-Pottery), Early Neolithic, Middle Neolithic, Late Neolithic I, Late Neolithic II, and Final Neolithic. With every micro-period within the Neolithic Age, there were new developments in farming and culture.

It is important to understand that these periods set the stage, so to say, for ancient Greek art.

It was during the early Neolithic period when people developed techniques to fire vases. The Middle Neolithic period brought with it new developments in architecture, namely the “megaroid”, also referred to as the “megaron”. This was a rectangular-shaped house with one bedroom and porches (open or closed), and it would also have columns at the front entrances.

The importance of the megaron structure is that it developed into the hall for Greek palaces. It is one of the primary characteristics of Greek architecture, also described as being “rectilinear” in shape. This would also become the shape for Greek temples.

Ancient Greek Paintings

Other architectural developments were the “Tsangli” structure, which was a settlement. This structure included two buttresses inside the house to add additional support for the roof. There were also rooms designated for different purposes. Houses during this period developed better foundations made of stone compared to the huts during the earlier stage. During the later Neolithic periods, there was an increase of advancements in farming and agriculture, and this period moved into the Bronze Age when people imported copper and bronze metals.

The Neolithic Greek Age occurred in various locations around Greece, namely, Athens, Dimini, Franchthi Cave, Knossos, Milos, Nea Nikomedeia, and Sesklo.

Into the Bronze Age of Greece – The Aegean Civilizations

The Greek Bronze Age is categorized by three dominant locations, and is also referred to as the Aegean Civilization, which was centered around the Aegean sea. The primary locations were, namely, the Cyclades, which are islands located southeast from the mainland of Greece, Crete, which lies more south of the mainland of Greece, and then there is the Greek mainland.

Each geographic area had different cultures. The Cycladic civilization (c. 3300-2000 BCE) from the Cyclades, the Minoan civilization (c. 2700-1100 BCE), which was from Crete, and the Mycenaean civilization (c. 3200-1050 BCE), which was from mainland Greece. The development of each civilization overlapped with the other, although the Mycenaean civilization eventually merged with the Minoan group.

Some of the notable features of these periods include writing, known as Linear A and Linear B, increased trade activities, and the development of various new tools.

The Cyclades civilization created female figurines, or idols, fashioned out of marble. Many of these appear with large oval faces and elongated noses. The main sites for this civilization were Keros, Grotta, Phylakopi, and Syros. The Minoans were largely located at Knossos, and other areas like Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros. The Minoans are known for having provided the earliest foundations for European civilization and developed many advancements in writing and trade. Their art and architecture consisted of ancient Greek paintings called frescoes, which were brightly painted and featured subjects like animals from the land and sea, and natural landscapes. These were often painted inside the palaces with borders that featured decorative patterns, symbols, and popular motifs.

Greek Artwork

The Minoans also produced a wide variety of greek pottery and ceramics. Examples of the different shapes of vessels include the amphora (with three handles), various beakers, rounded vessels, and storage jars referred to as pithos . Ceremonial jugs were made to contain libations for rituals, and these were known as rhyta , and made in the shape of an animal’s head.

The bull was a significant animal in Minoan culture and they would often depict the bull’s horns in their art and decorations. The Minoans also had gold jewelry, sculptures, and palaces built to the height of up to four stories. Palaces were significant to the culture alongside their extensive architectural layouts, various farming communities, and roads built to connect the farms and villages.

The Mycenaean civilization was located mainly in Mycenae and other areas like Athens, Thebes, Pylos, and Sparta, among others. It is also referred to as the Helladic period since the Mycenaeans lived on mainland Greece and were considered indigenous.

Trading was common among the Mycenaean civilization, who exchanged goods and materials such as gold, glass, copper, and even ivory.

The Mycenaeans created artworks that were influenced by the Minoan civilization. They were known as having a strong warrior culture with the Trojan War as a famous event that popularized Greek culture. When we look at Mycenaean frescoes, one can spot a variety of scenes relating to battle, animals, nature, and warriors marching with their weapons. The similarities between Mycenaean art and Minoan art are often noted, although Mycenaean art is described as appearing more geometric and formal in its style. However, trade between Crete (Minoans) and Mycenae, also influenced the styles of art and its development between the two cultures.

The well-known Lion Gate (c. 1250 BCE) is one of the lasting remnants of an architectural relief sculpture, depicting two lions (or lionesses) facing one another, standing on their hind legs with their front legs resting on a block-like base, and a column in the center. The Lion Gate is located at the main entrance to the Acropolis, where the palace and citadel were once situated.

Greek Art and Architecture

The Greek Dark Ages and the Start of Greek Civilization

The Mycenaean civilization ended around 1100 BCE, with the fall of this civilization and many others around that period becoming a widely debated topic. Many sources point to invasions by the Dorian civilization, climate change, natural disasters, and other social issues such as famine and overpopulation. This era is referred to as the “Late Bronze Age Collapse”, which would eventually become what is known as the Greek Dark Ages. This period occurred between 1100 BCE and 750 BCE, and was referred to as the “Homeric” period, which related to two of Homer’s poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Almost congruent with the above-mentioned periods, the Geometric period (900-700 BCE) occurred near the end of the Greek Dark Ages, and in the context of style, art on pottery was depicted in geometric shapes, which gave this period its name. It was after this period that Greece started to rapidly develop and transform.

Following this era, there was an increase in population and ancient Greek art began to take shape, embodying the ideals of Classical art as we now know it.

Greek Art and Architecture Characteristics

When we look at Greek art, we think in terms of idealized marble sculptures and human figures that appear as perfect and beautiful. There were three distinct periods in Greek art that characterized its development. Below, we look at these three periods along with their corresponding contributions to different art forms and notable artists within each period.

Famous Greek Art

The Archaic Period (c. 650 – 480 BCE)

The Archaic period occurred with the onset of the Greek Olympic games in 776 BCE, and saw many political and social developments. Greek became a city-state, referred to as polis , which means “city” in Greek. These poleis were mainly ruled under tyranny, although there is also a debate that this tyrannical rule was not the same as what it turned into in later years. Tyrants essentially assisted communities to become more expansive in wealth and offered people more employment opportunities.

Art during the Archaic period is described as more naturalistic in its portrayal compared to the Geometric period. Some of the primary forms of artwork were pottery, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Because of trade between various Eastern countries, there was a wide Oriental influence noticeable on vases and vessels. Animals such as lions, griffins, and sphinxes were incorporated in Greek art and artists employed decorative motifs like curves and floral patterns.

The human form was also depicted not only in pottery paintings but also in sculpture. This was evident in the various life-sized figure sculptures created from stone. While there were elements of Realism in their portrayal, there was also an idealism largely influenced by the Mycenaeans and the show of strength and physical prowess in representations of the masculine form.

This was largely displayed in the figures of athletes and warriors of the time, marking the Mycenaean culture as a “Golden Age” for representations of bravery and heroism.

The human form in sculpture during the Archaic period was captured in kouros (“young boy”) and kore (“young girl”) statues. These statues were created in a “frontal” stance, bearing influence from Egyptian statues at the time, as well as being “freestanding”. The features that characterize them include an upright stance with arms at the sides, feet closely next to the other, and broad shoulders.

Ancient Greek Art

The female counterpart, the kore , was often depicted wearing dresses of their time with various stylistic elements. In both types of statues, we see what is referred to as the “archaic smile”, which gives the appearance of softness and serenity for both male and female statues. Furthermore, the purpose for these statues varied, for example, the korai were used as votive offerings to Greek goddesses like Athena. The kouroi were used as memorials to either deceased individuals or given to winners of games played and competed in.

There are numerous reasons why these statues were used since some believe that they were created resemble Greek deities and represented the God Apollo.

Examples of Greek sculptors and Athenian arts during this period include the Athenian Kritios, who worked in the later stages of the Archaic period. He is considered to have greatly influenced the more realistic artistic styles in sculpture in the subsequent Classical period. He is known as being the student of the sculptor named Antenor (c. 540-500 BCE), who created The Tyrranicides (510 BCE).

Ancient Greek Artwork

Tyrranicides was commissioned by Cleisthenes, a political leader who set the foundations for democracy in Athens during the 6 th century BCE. He was remembered as the founder of Athenian democracy. The sculpture depicts the two figures, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who assassinated the tyrant Hipparchus. Kritios recreated this sculpture with another sculptor called Nesiotes after it was taken by Xerxes I during the war between Persia and Greece. Kritios is also famous for his sculpture named Kritios Boy (c. 490-480 BCE). In size, it is recorded as being smaller than a life-sized sculpture.

As an early Classical period piece, Kritios showed Greek sculptors a new manner in depicting the human figure. We also see this technique commonly utilized in Renaissance and Neoclassical paintings and sculpture, and is referred to as contrapposto , the Kritios Boy is standing with his weight on one leg, giving the body a slight S-curve. Other features of this work show the dropped left shoulder, the expanded rib cage as a sign of inhalation, and the facial expression, which is not as idealized as we see in previous early Archaic sculptures.

Kritios is described as producing work that was more “severe” in style. This is exemplified in the figure’s mouth since it is not the Archaic smile we see in the idealized expressions before, but appears more grim and serious.

This statue is now housed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens with many other Athenian arts. The statue was one of many other ancient Greek artifacts found in the “Persian Rubble”, called Perserschutt , left behind by the Persian invaders after they sacked the Acropolis during 480 BCE. Of important debate today, is the removal of the Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in the 19th century and stored in the British Museum. 

Greek Art Statue

Classical Period (c. 480 – 323 BCE)

Where the Archaic period is often described as being experimental in its portrayal of Realism in the human form, the Classical period was a considerable advancement forward, depicting a Naturalism in the human form. This period in Greece was also considered the “Golden Age” because of the Greeks’ victory over Persia, which is known as the Greco-Persian War. This new period of peace and victory gave birth to many new developments in not only arts and architecture, but philosophy (with some of the greatest philosophers of Western history, namely, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle), science, and politics. The city-state of Athens was also rebuilt after the war.

The “Golden Age” lasted for around 50 years until the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE, when Sparta won power over Athens. However, the Macedonian war then took over the Greek states, under the rule of King Philip II and then his son, Alexander the Great. The philosophies of Plato and Aristotle had a profound effect on Greek artwork and how Greek artists depicted the human figure. Plato also started an academy in Athens (c.387 BCE). This ushered in new ways of thinking, making reason and knowledge an important determining factor that underpinned many beliefs and perspectives. Many images of Greek figures can be found on black-figure and red-figure pottery, as well as in the works of Skopas and Lysippos. 

Greek Art Mosaic

Classical Greek Sculpture

In Classical Greece, art became a representation of the natural world. Greek artists began to create sculptures that appeared human-like and detailed but still beautiful and perfect in their rendering. This brings us to what was known as the “Canon of Proportions”. This term refers to the “perfect” artwork, according to Greek sculptor Polykleitos. He developed what was termed The Canon (c. 450 BCE), which referred to a set of ratios based on mathematical measurements of the human body to depict each body part in perfect order and symmetry, commonly understood as a set of perfect proportions.

An example of this can be seen in his sculpture Doryphoros (c. 440 BCE), also known as the Spear Bearer , which depicts a nude male warrior. This work has been reproduced in marble by other sculptors due to the original bronze sculpture being lost. However, the replicas indicate the ideal perfection of the male form obtained through mathematical measurements.

Famous Greek Artwork

This sculpture was also a physical example of Polykleitos’ theoretical underpinnings about achieving perfect form through proportions, which ultimately sought to illustrate harmony and perfect balance. The word “Canon” means “rule” or “measure”. It was the interest in achieving and depicting the idealized human figure, which was usually sought in the figures of male athletes and warriors, that became widespread in Greek sculpture. We also see this element in the works of other Greek sculptors of the Classical period, such as Myron’s classic Discobolus or Discus Thrower (c. 425 BCE).

The Discobolus was originally sculpted in bronze but recreated by various Roman sculptors over time in bronze and marble. It is a male discus thrower portrayed in the act of throwing the discus. His body appears contorted to prepare for the throw, putting him in the classical contrapposto stance. We see his right arm behind him holding the discus, and his head is turned in the same direction. At any moment, we expect the arm to swing forward. This image creates a sense of Naturalism in the human figure and displays each body part in correlation with the other.

Greek Artists Statue

Praxiteles was another prominent sculptor of the 4 th century BCE, famous for his life-sized female nude sculptures, of which he was a pioneer. One of his popular sculptures includes Aphrodite of Cnidus (c. 4 th century BCE), depicting the nude female holding a bath towel in her left hand (or reaching for one), while covering her genitalia with her right hand, and represented with her breasts exposed.

A sculpture such as this was revolutionary at the time because all sculptures were typically representative of male nudes. Additionally, sculpting the Greek goddess as life-sized created further impact, and it was clear that Praxiteles had set the tone for Greek sculpture in a daring new way. His Aphrodite was also described by the famous Roman author, Pliny the Elder, as one of the finest sculptures made.

Well-Known Greek Art

Classical Greek Architecture

The grandeur of Classical Greek architecture is captured in the walls of the famous Greek temple, the Parthenon (447-432 BCE). It is a large rectangular structure located on the Acropolis of Athens, which is a flat hill overlooking the city. It was designed by architects Ictinus and Callicrates and dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena.

A monumental sculpture was housed in the center of the temple, titled Athena Parthenos . It was created by a well-known Greek sculptor, Phidias. The sculpture was an example of the majesty of Athena and was around 40 feet in height and made from ivory and gold (the goddess’ skin was sculpted in ivory and her clothes were made from gold fabric).

Athenian Arts

The Parthenon had numerous other sculptures and friezes surrounding it, including 17 Doric order columns along the longer horizontal sides and eight along the shorter sides. The Doric order columns were a testament to another architectural development within this period, namely the Doric and Ionic column styles. The latter, Ionic style, was also prominent in the Hellenistic period, from which the third, Corinthian style, also emerged.

As the first evolution of the architectural “orders”, the Doric style is plainer and described as “austere”. It consists of the top of the column, known as the “capital”, which is not decorated but created in plain stone. The base rests without support on the stylobate, which is the upper step on a temple’s crepidoma (the leveled or tiered foundation that holds the superstructure). The difference between the Ionic style is that the capital is more stylized and decorated, and is often described as being more slender in appearance than the robust Doric style. The Ionic column also includes a base to support it.

Famous Athenian Arts

The Hellenistic Period (c. 323 – 27 BCE)

While the Classical Period is marked by being under the rule of Philip II of Macedonia, near the end of this period, King Philip II was assassinated and replaced by his son, Alexander the Great. The Hellenistic period, or Hellenism, came into effect after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE. However, since Alexander did not have a successor, there was a period of uncertainty between all the generals. This uncertainty led Alexander’s generals to ascertain their power in different dynasties, however, the Roman Republic eventually took over Macedonia in 146 BCE, and by 27 BCE, Emperor Augustus took over Greece and it became part of the Roman Empire.

The Romans were inspired by Greek art and architecture since numerous replicas in marble have been found to have originated from original works created by Greek artists.

During the Hellenistic period, Greek art became more diverse with a wider range of subjects, including not only young or warrior-like males but everyday folk and animals. Greek artists also moved away from depicting idealized forms, as there was a heightened tendency toward Naturalism, almost to the point of being dramatic across sculpture and painting. Art was also commissioned by patrons and created as decorative additions to homes, such as bronze statues.

Hellenistic Greek Sculpture

Greek sculptures appeared more emotive during this period. Considering the rigidity and idealism of the “archaic smile” from the preceding periods, there has been considerable evolution in depicting the human form. There was a focus on drama and emotion, with this period often described as being more pro-theatrical in art and architecture. Many famous sculptures were created in Hellenistic Greece, including the Colossus of Rhodes (c. 220 BCE) by Chares of Lindos, which was around 110 feet in height. This magnificent statue was a male figure dedicated to Helios, the sun God. Unfortunately, this statue was destroyed during an earthquake.

Works by Greek Artists

Another sculpture was The Dying Gaul (c. 230-220 BCE) by Epigonus. This depicted a typical example of the expressive nature of Hellenistic sculptures. The figure was of a Gaul, as was evident from his haircut and the ring around his neck, otherwise referred to as a “torque”. He appears caught in the process of dying, which is shown in his posture and broken sword next to him. What makes this sculpture so unique is that it captures a moment of death, inevitably evoking emotions in the viewer that stir the feelings of defeat and hopelessness. 

Ancient Greek Art Statue

Other notable sculptures include the famous Venus de Milo (130-100 BCE) by Alexandros of Antioch. Here, we see a female figure (missing both arms), supposedly Venus, the Greek goddess of love. However, various scholarly debates suggest it could either be a prostitute or the sea goddess, Amphitrite, since the statue was found on the volcanic island of Milos in 1820.

We will notice the familiar contrapposto posture in this sculpture, which was made evident by the draping of her robe around her lower torso and elevated left leg. There is also a hint of sensuality with her exposed upper torso and the robe that appears to slide off her legs. There is also a dramatic element to how she was posed, again, attracting attention from onlookers.

Famous Greek Art Statue

This heightened sense of drama in one of the most famous sculptures today from the Hellenistic period can also be seen in Laoco ö n and His Sons (27 BCE-68 CE), which was created by three sculptors from Rhodes, namely, Agesandro, Athendoros, and Polydoros. This piece was excavated in 1506 in a vineyard in Rome, with Michelangelo supervising the process. After its excavation, it was taken to the Vatican and put on display in the Belvedere Court Garden. This sculpture has been the model for many artists during the Renaissance period and inspired many other modern artists hundreds of years later.

It is described as one of the most studied and replicated pieces of Greek art.

The subject represents Laocoön in the center with his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, in a desperate struggle to pry the biting sea serpents off them. We notice how Laocoön himself is being bitten by one of the serpents and his son to the left has fallen over, possibly already killed. This sculpture catches the moment of death and struggle of the three figures, increasing the intensity of emotion and dramatic effect. Added to this is the larger-than-life size of Laocoön’s body. The narrative was inspired by the legend of the Trojan War, where Laocoön (who was a priest) was said to have given a warning to the Trojans about the wooden horse and their plans. As a result, he was attacked by serpents in an effort to silence him.

Greek Art Statues

Hellenistic Greek Architecture

In Hellenistic architecture, the Corinthian order soared in popularity and was a more elaborate style that brought a decorative effect to buildings. Architecture in this period was adapted to accommodate more people for entertainment purposes. An example of this new development includes the Pergamon Acropolis. Designed as a cultural hub, this acropolis featured theaters, baths, libraries, gymnasiums, and religious buildings such as temples. It truly became a testament to a new, urbanized way of life.

Another architectural element of this acropolis includes the Altar of Zeus ( Pergamon Altar ), which was over 30 meters in width. It was created in the shape of an upside-down “U”, with steps comprising most of its width in the center. Throughout the superstructure were numerous columns in the Ionic style. Along the base of the superstructure was the Gigantomachy frieze, which depicted the mythological story about the battle between the Greek Olympian Gods and the giants.

Greek Artwork for Zeus

The frieze measured over 100 meters in length and was sculpted in a high-relief method. The sculpted scenes are dynamic in their portrayal and move along each of the altar’s sides. Some figures also appear to continue onto the staircase from the frieze, as we see in their legs and feet, seemingly becoming a part of the whole structure instead of being relegated to remain along the structure’s sides.

Pergamon was a city ruled by the Attalid dynasty, and the creation of the Pergamon Acropolis was to establish the Kingdom of Pergamon as part of Greece after Alexander the Great’s demise. The Pergamon Dynasty emerged at a later stage than other dynasties during this time, and this cultural hub was a testament to their part in the Greek inheritances.

Greek Art Detail

To Rome and Beyond

While there are many other structures and sculptures from the Hellenistic period, this period eventually evolved into the rule of the Roman Empire. The Pergamon Kingdom, under the rule of King Attalus III, was taken over by the Roman Republic after the King’s death in 133 BCE.

It is said the Roman Republic began around 509 BCE, when the last king (of which there were seven), Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown by his nephew Lucius Junius Brutus, who was known as one of the first founders of the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic eventually developed into an empire in around 27 BCE, with Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus ( Augustus ) as the first emperor. Greek artwork was greatly admired and copied by the Romans, and its classical essence of rationality, beauty, and proportion lived on through their art and architecture. Beyond Rome, the Greek art style was given a second breath, so to say, through the eyes, hands, and minds of Renaissance painters and sculptors.

To this day, we are still touched by the beauty and symmetry left behind in what remains of ancient Greek artifacts. While most of the Greek art has since been lost or destroyed, it is remembered and immortalized by those who were inspired by the ancient art styles many centuries ago. We hope that these incredible gems of Greek art history will enlighten you, as you continue to learn about the many important artistic developments of the past. 

Take a look at our Ancient Greece art webstory here!

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the different periods in greek art.

Greek art has a long history that dates back to prehistoric times. However, the Classical Greek era is divided into three primary stages of development, namely, the Archaic period (c. 650-480 BCE), the Classical period (c. 480-323 BCE), and the Hellenistic period (c. 323-27 BCE). These three eras are considered to be the most important periods in Greek art. 

What Does Classical Order Mean in Greek Art?

The term Classical order is used to describe a type of column style used in ancient Greek architecture . There were three dominant orders, namely, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The Doric order style was simple in its design, while the Ionic and Corinthian orders were decorative, elaborate, and more slender in appearance than the shorter Doric order.

What Are Some Greek Art Characteristics?

Greek art was characterized by many qualities. These include the depiction of beauty in an idealized manner. Figures in sculpture became more naturalistic in their portrayal of proportion and balance. The famous contrapposto technique became widely incorporated, adding a new element of dynamism to the representation of the human figure. Greek art depicted the belief in mathematical congruency to determine beauty. Greek art included the use of materials such as clay, terracotta, bronze, stone, and miniature works created in ivory, metal, and bone. 

Which Museum Has the Largest Collection of Greek Art?

The National Archaeological Museum is considered to have the largest collection of Greek artifacts, with more than 11,000 works from prehistory to antiquity. The museum is also said to have the highest number of Greek statues and is recognized as the largest Greek museum. 

isabella meyer

Isabella studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature & Language and Psychology. Throughout her undergraduate years, she took Art History as an additional subject and absolutely loved it. Building on from her art history knowledge that began in high school, art has always been a particular area of fascination for her. From learning about artworks previously unknown to her, or sharpening her existing understanding of specific works, the ability to continue learning within this interesting sphere excites her greatly.

Her focal points of interest in art history encompass profiling specific artists and art movements, as it is these areas where she is able to really dig deep into the rich narrative of the art world. Additionally, she particularly enjoys exploring the different artistic styles of the 20 th century, as well as the important impact that female artists have had on the development of art history.

Learn more about Isabella Meyer and the Art in Context Team .

Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, “Greek Art – Gems in Ancient Greek Art History.” Art in Context. May 19, 2021. URL:

Meyer, I. (2021, 19 May). Greek Art – Gems in Ancient Greek Art History. Art in Context.

Meyer, Isabella. “Greek Art – Gems in Ancient Greek Art History.” Art in Context , May 19, 2021. .

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The Most Famous Artists and Artworks

Discover the most famous artists, paintings, sculptors…in all of history! 

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Discover the most famous artists, paintings, sculptors!

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Introduction to ancient Greek art

A shared language, religion, and culture

Ancient Greece can feel strangely familiar. From the exploits of  Achilles  and Odysseus ,  to the treatises of Aristotle , from the exacting measurements of the Parthenon  (image above) to the rhythmic chaos of the Laocoön (image below), ancient Greek culture has shaped our world. Thanks largely to notable archaeological sites, well-known literary sources, and the impact of Hollywood ( Clash of the Titans , for example), this civilization is embedded in our collective consciousness—prompting visions of epic battles, erudite philosophers, gleaming white temples, and limbless nudes (we now know the sculptures—even the ones that decorated temples like the Parthenon—were brightly painted, and, of course, the fact that the figures are often missing limbs is the result of the ravages of time).

Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his Sons, early first century C.E., marble, 7'10 1/2" high (Vatican Museums; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his Sons, early first century C.E., marble, 7’10 1/2″ high (Vatican Museums; photo: Steven Zucker , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Dispersed around the Mediterranean and divided into self-governing units called poleis or city-states , the ancient Greeks were united by a shared language, religion, and culture. Strengthening these bonds further were the so-called “Panhellenic” sanctuaries and festivals that embraced “all Greeks” and encouraged interaction, competition, and exchange (for example the Olympics, which were held at the Panhellenic sanctuary at Olympia). Although popular modern understanding of the ancient Greek world is based on the classical art of fifth century B.C.E. Athens, it is important to recognize that Greek civilization was vast and did not develop overnight.

The Ancient Greek World

The Dark Ages (c. 1100–c. 800 B.C.E.)  to the Orientalizing Period (c. 700–600 B.C.E.)

Following the collapse of the Mycenaean citadels of the late Bronze Age, the Greek mainland was traditionally thought to enter a “Dark Age” that lasted from c. 1100 until c. 800 B.C.E. Not only did the complex socio-cultural system of the Mycenaeans disappear, but also its numerous achievements (i.e., metalworking, large-scale construction, writing). The discovery and continuous excavation of a site known as Lefkandi , however, drastically alters this impression. Located just north of Athens, Lefkandi has yielded an immense apsidal structure (almost fifty meters long), a massive network of graves, and two heroic burials replete with gold objects and valuable horse sacrifices. One of the most interesting artifacts, ritually buried in two separate graves, is a centaur figurine (see photos below). At fourteen inches high, the terracotta creature is composed of a equine (horse) torso made on a potter’s wheel and hand-formed human limbs and features. Alluding to mythology and perhaps a particular story, this centaur embodies the cultural richness of this period.

Centaur, c. 900 (Proto-Geometric period), terracotta, 14 inches high, the head was found in tomb 1 and the body was found in tomb 3 in the cemetery of Toumba, Lefkandi, Greece (detail of head photo: Dan Diffendale CC BY-NC-SA 2)

Centaur, c. 900 B.C.E. (Proto-Geometric period), terracotta, 14 inches high, the head was found in tomb 1 and the body was found in tomb 3 in the cemetery of Toumba, Lefkandi, Greece (detail of head photo: Dan Diffendale CC BY-NC-SA 2)

Similar in its adoption of narrative elements is a vase-painting likely from Thebes dating to c. 730 B.C.E. (see image below). Fully ensconced in the Geometric Period (c. 800–700 B.C.E.), the imagery on the vase reflects other eighth-century artifacts, such as the Dipylon Amphora ,  with its geometric patterning and silhouetted human forms. Though simplistic, the overall scene on this vase seems to record a story. A man and woman stand beside a ship outfitted with tiers of rowers. Grasping at the stern and lifting one leg into the hull, the man turns back towards the female and takes her by the wrist. Is the couple Theseus and Ariadne ? Is this an abduction? Perhaps   Paris and Helen ? Or, is the man bidding farewell to the woman and embarking on a journey as had Odysseus and Penelope ? The answer is unattainable.

Late Geometric Attic spouted krater (vessel for mixing water and wine), possibly from Thebes, c. 730-720 B.C.E., 30.5 cm high (The British Museum, London), photo: Egisto Sani CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Late Geometric Attic spouted krater (vessel for mixing water and wine), possibly from Thebes, c. 730 B.C.E., 30.5 cm high (The British Museum, London), photo: Egisto Sani CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the Orientalizing Period (700–600 B.C.E.), alongside Near Eastern motifs and animal processions , craftsmen produced more nuanced figural forms and intelligible illustrations. For example, terracotta painted plaques from the Temple of Apollo at Thermon (c. 625 B.C.E.) are some of the earliest evidence for architectural decoration in Iron Age Greece. Once ornamenting the surface of this Doric temple (most likely as metopes), the extant panels have preserved various imagery (watch this video to learn about the Doric order). On one plaque (see image below), a male youth strides towards the right and carries a significant attribute under his right arm—the severed head of the Gorgon  Medusa (her face is visible between the right hand and right hip of the striding figure). Not only is the painter successful here in relaying a particular story, but also the figure of Perseus shows great advancement from the previous century. The limbs are fleshy, the facial features are recognizable, and the hat and winged boots appropriately equip the hero for fast travel.

Fragment showing Perseus with the head of Medusa likely from a metope from the Temple of Apollo at Thermon, c. 630 B.C.E., painted terracotta, 87.8 cm high (National Archaeological Museum, Athens; photo: ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Fragment showing Perseus with the head of Medusa likely from a metope from the Temple of Apollo at Thermon, c. 630 B.C.E., painted terracotta, 87.8 cm high (National Archaeological Museum, Athens; photo: ArchaiOptix , CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Archaic Period (c. 600–480/479 B.C.E.)

While Greek artisans continued to develop their individual crafts, storytelling ability, and more realistic portrayals of human figures throughout the Archaic Period, the city of Athens witnessed the rise and fall of tyrants and the introduction of democracy by the statesman Kleisthenes in the years 508 and 507 B.C.E.

Visually, the period is known for large-scale marble kouros (male youth) and kore (female youth) sculptures (see below). Showing the influence of ancient Egyptian sculpture (like this example  of the Pharaoh Menkaure and his wife in the MFA, Boston), the kouros stands rigidly with both arms extended at the side and one leg advanced. Frequently employed as grave markers, these sculptural types displayed unabashed nudity, highlighting their complicated hairstyles and abstracted musculature (below left). The kore, on the other hand, was never nude. Not only was her form draped in layers of fabric, but she was also ornamented with jewelry and adorned with a crown. Though some have been discovered in funerary contexts, like Phrasiklea (below right), a vast majority were found on the Acropolis in Athens (for the Acropolis korai, click here ). Ritualistically buried following desecration of this sanctuary by the Persians in 480 and 479 B.C.E., dozens of korai were unearthed alongside other dedicatory artifacts. While the identities of these figures have been hotly debated in recent times, most agree that they were originally intended as votive offerings to the goddess Athena.

Left: Anavysos (Kroisos) Kouros, c. 530 B.C.E., marble, 6' 4" (National Archaeological Museum, Athens) Right: Aristion of Paros, Phrasikleia Kore, c. 550–540 B.C.E. Parian marble with traces of pigment, 211 cm high (National Archaeological Museum, Athens), photo: Asaf Braverman CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Left: Anavysos (Kroisos) Kouros , c. 530 B.C.E., marble, 6′ 4″ (National Archaeological Museum, Athens), photo: Steven Zucker Right: Aristion of Paros, Phrasikleia Kore , c. 550–540 B.C.E. Parian marble with traces of pigment, 211 cm high (National Archaeological Museum, Athens), photo: Asaf Braverman CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Classical Period (480/479–323 B.C.E.)

Though experimentation in realistic movement began before the end of the Archaic Period, it was not until the Classical Period that two- and three-dimensional forms achieved proportions and postures that were naturalistic. The “Early Classical Period” (480/479–450 B.C.E., also known as the “Severe Style”) was a period of transition when some sculptural work displayed archaizing holdovers. As can be seen in the Kritios Boy , c. 480 B.C.E., the “Severe Style” features realistic anatomy, serious expressions, pouty lips, and thick eyelids.  For painters, the development of perspective and multiple ground lines enriched compositions, as can be seen on the Niobid Painter’s vase in the Louvre (image below).

Niobid Painter, Niobid Krater, Attic red-figure calyx-krater, c. 460–50 B.C.E., 54 x 56 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Niobid Painter, Niobid Krater, Attic red-figure calyx-krater, c. 460–50 B.C.E., 54 x 56 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

During the “High Classical Period” (450–400 B.C.E.), there was great artistic success: from the innovative structures on the Acropolis to Polykleitos’ visual and cerebral manifestation of idealization in his sculpture of a young man holding a spear, the  Doryphoros or “Canon ” (image below). Concurrently, however, Athens, Sparta, and their mutual allies were embroiled in the Peloponnesian War, a bitter conflict that lasted for several decades and ended in 404 B.C.E. Despite continued military activity throughout the “Late Classical Period” (400–323 B.C.E.), artistic production and development continued apace. In addition to a new figural aesthetic in the fourth century known for its longer torsos and limbs, and smaller heads (for example, the Apoxyomenos ), the first female nude was produced. Known as the Aphrodite of Knidos,  c. 350 B.C.E., the sculpture pivots at the shoulders and hips into an S-Curve and stands with her right hand over her genitals in a pudica (or modest Venus) pose (see a Roman copy in the Capitoline Museum in Rome here ). Exhibited in a circular temple and visible from all sides, the Aphrodite of Knidos became one of the most celebrated sculptures in all of antiquity.

Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) or The Canon, c. 450–40 B.C.E., ancient Roman marble copy found in Pompeii of the lost bronze original, 211 cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) or The Canon, c. 450–40 B.C.E., ancient Roman marble copy found in Pompeii of the lost bronze original, 211 cm (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; photo: Steven Zucker , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Hellenistic Period and Beyond (323 B.C.E.–31 B.C.E.)

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E., the Greeks and their influence stretched as far east as modern India. While some pieces intentionally mimicked the Classical style of the previous period such as Eutychides’  Tyche of Antioche   (Louvre), other artists were more interested in capturing motion and emotion. For example, on the Great Altar of Zeus from Pergamon (below) expressions of agony and a confused mass of limbs convey a newfound interest in drama.

Athena defeats Alkyoneus (detail), The Pergamon Altar, c. 200–150 B.C.E. (Hellenistic Period), 35.64 x 33.4 meters, marble (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

Athena defeats Alkyoneus (detail), The Pergamon Altar, c. 200–150 B.C.E. (Hellenistic Period), 35.64 x 33.4 meters, marble (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

Architecturally, the scale of structures vastly increased, as can be seen with the Temple of Apollo at Didyma , and some complexes even terraced their surrounding landscape in order to create spectacular vistas as can be seem at the Sanctuary of Asklepios on Kos . Upon the defeat of Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt and, simultaneously, the Hellenistic Period came to a close. With the Roman admiration of and predilection for Greek art and culture, however, Classical aesthetics and teachings continued to endure from antiquity to the modern era.

Additional resources

Check out our three chapters about ancient Greek art in  Reframing Art History :

  • Pottery, the body, and the gods in ancient Greece, c. 800–490 B.C.E.
  • War, democracy, and art in ancient Greece, c. 490–350 B.C.E.
  • Empire and Art in the Hellenistic world (c. 350–31 B.C.E.)

The Art of classical Greece from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Greek Art in the Archaic Period on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Richard T. Neer, Greek Art and Archaeology: A New History, c. 2500–c. 150 B.C.E. (Thames and Hudson, 2011).

Robin Osborne, Archaic and Classical Greek Art (Oxford University Press, 1988).

John G. Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology (Pearson, 2011).

J.J. Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece (Cambridge University Press, 1972).

Nigel Jonathan Spivey, Greek Art (Phaeton Press, 1997).

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Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture Collage

Summary of Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

Classical Art encompasses the cultures of Greece and Rome and endures as the cornerstone of Western civilization. Including innovations in painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and architecture, Classical Art pursued ideals of beauty, harmony, and proportion, even as those ideals shifted and changed over the centuries. While often employed in propagandistic ways, the human figure and the human experience of space and their relationship with the gods were central to Classical Art. Over the span of almost 1200 years, ideals of human beauty and proportion occupied art's subject. Variations of those ideals were later adopted during the Renaissance in Italy and again during the 18 th and 19 th century Neoclassical trend throughout Europe. Connotations of moral virtue and stability clung to Classical Art, making it attractive to new nations and republics trying to find an aesthetic vocabulary to convey their power, while, later, in the 20 th century it came under attack by modern artists who sought to disrupt and overturn power and traditional ideals.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The idealized human form soon became the noblest subject of art in Greece and was the foundation for a standard of beauty that dominated many centuries of Western art. The Greek ideal of beauty was grounded in a canon of proportions, based on the golden ratio and the ratio of lengths of body parts to each other, which governed the depictions of male and female figures.
  • While ideal proportions were paramount, Classical Art strove for ever greater realism in anatomical depictions. This realism also came to encompass emotional and psychological realism that created dramatic tensions and drew in the viewer.
  • Greek temple designs started simply and evolved into more complex and ornate structures, but later architects translated the symmetrical design and columned exterior into a host of governmental, educational, and religious buildings over the centuries to convey a sense of order and stability.
  • Perhaps a coincidence, but just as increased archaeological digs turned up numerous examples of Greek and Roman art, the field of art history was being developed as a scientific course of study by the likes of Johann Winkelmann. Winkelmann, often considered the father of art history, based his theories of the progression of art on the development of Greek art, which he largely knew only from Roman copies. Since the middle of the 18 th century, art historical and classical tradition have been intimately entwined.
  • While Greek and Roman sculpture and ruins are linked with the purity of white marble in the Western mind, most of the works were originally polychrome, painted in multiple, lifelike colors. 18 th century excavations unearthed a number of sculptures with traces of color, but noted art historians dismissed the findings as anomalies. It was only in the late 20 th century that scholars accepted that life-size statues and entire temple friezes were, in fact, brightly painted with numerous colors and decorations, raising many new questions about the assumptions of Western art history and revealing that centuries of classical imitations were not in fact imitations but rather based on nostalgic ideals of the past.

Artworks and Artists of Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

Roman copy 120-50 BCE of original by Polycleitus, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) c. 440 BCE (120-50 BCE)

Roman copy 120-50 BCE of original by Polycleitus, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) c. 440 BCE

This work depicts a nude muscular warrior, as he steps forward, his head turns slightly to his right, and his left hand would have readied a spear that originally rested upon his left shoulder. The figure's anatomical realism conveys potential movement through a complex interaction of tensed and relaxed muscles. Almost seven feet tall, the monumental work conveys an imposing sense of male heroic beauty that could face whatever may come with dispassionate calm, as shown in the serious but expressionless face. Because marble copies needed additional support, the tree stump was an addition to the bronze original. What is known of the original is based upon the exceptional quality of later copies, including this one. Polycleitus thought this work was synonymous with his Canon, a treatise of sculptural principles, based upon mathematical proportions. Though his treatise has been lost, references to it survived in later accounts, including Galen's, a 2 nd century Greek writer, who wrote that its "Beauty consists in the proportions, not of the elements, but of the parts, that is to say, of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and of all the other parts to each other." At the time it was made, the work was widely acclaimed, as Warren G. Moon and Barbara Hughes Fowler write, the Doryphorus ushered in "a new definition of true human artistic moral exemplar...tied to no particular place or action, he represents the universal male ideal." This marble copy, found in a gymnasium at Pompeii, became the most admired work of the Roman Republic, as Roman aristocrats commissioned copies.

Marble copy of bronze original - Naples National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Ictinus and Callicrates: The Parthenon (447-432 BCE)

The Parthenon

Artist: Ictinus and Callicrates

This iconic temple, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens, stands majestically on top of the Acropolis, a sacred complex overlooking the city. The 17 Doric columns on either side and the eight at each end create both a sense of harmonious proportion and a dynamic visual and horizontal movement. The building exemplifies the Doric order and the rectangular plan of Greek temples, which emphasized a flow of movement and light between the temple's interior and the surrounding space, while the movement of the columns, rising out of the earth, to the entablature that rings the building, draws the eye heavenward to the carved reliefs and statues that, originally, brightly painted, crowned the temple. Ictinus and Callicrates were identified as the architects of the building in ancient sources, while the sculptor Phidias and the statesman Pericles supervised the project. Dedicated in 438 BCE, the Parthenon replaced the earlier temple on the city's holy site that also included a shrine to Erechtheus, the city's mythical founder, a smaller temple of the goddess Athena, and the olive tree that she gave to Athens, all of which were destroyed by the invading Persian Army in 480 BCE. The Persians also killed the priests, priestesses, and citizens who had taken refuge at the site, and, when the new Parthenon was dedicated, following that experience of trauma and desecration, it was a monument to the restoration and continuation of Athenian values and became, as art critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote, a "dramatization of the political and moral differences between the victims and the perpetrators." As Mendelsohn noted, the Parthenon while taken "as the epitome of Greek architecture...was typical of nothing at all, an anomaly in terms of material, size, and design." It was both the largest temple in Greece and the first built of only marble. While Doric temples commonly had thirteen columns on each side and six in the front, the Parthenon pioneered the octastyle, with eight columns, thus extending the space for sculptural reliefs. Originally the Parthenon Marbles decorated the entablature, as 92 metopes , or rectangular stone panels, depicted mythological battle scenes - of gods fighting giants, Greek warriors fighting Trojans or Amazons, and men battling centaurs - while the pediments contained statues depicting the stories of Athena's life, so that as Mendelsohn wrote, "Merely to walk around the temple was to get a lesson in Greek and Athenian civic history." The temple's interior was equally meant to inspire, as Phidias's colossal statue of Athena Parthenos , or the virgin Athena, dominated the space. Forty feet tall, the statue held a six foot tall gold statue of Victory in her hand. A frieze, carved in relief, lined the surrounding walls, innovatively introducing a decorative feature of Ionic architecture into the Doric order. The 525 foot long frieze has been described by art historian Joan Breton Connelly as "showing 378 human and 245 animal figures... the largest and most detailed revelation of Athenian consciousness we have ... this moving portrayal of noble faces from the distant past, ... the largest, most elaborate narrative tableau the Athenians have left us." The Parthenon's design employed precise mathematical proportions, based upon the golden ratio, but as Mendelsohn noted, "There are almost no straight lines in the building." The columns employ entasis , a swelling at the center of each column, and tilt inward, while the foundation also rises toward the façade, correcting for the optical illusion of sagging and tilting that would have resulted in perfectly straight lines. Aesthetically, though, as Mendelsohn explains, "[T]he slight swelling also conveys the subliminal impression of muscular effort...Arching, leaning, straining, swelling, breathing: the over-all to give the building a special and slightly unsettling quality of being somehow alive." The building has been highly praised since ancient times as the 1 st century Roman historian Plutarch called it "no less stately in size than exquisite in form," and in the modern era, Le Corbusier called it "the basis for all measurement in art."

Marble - Athens, Greece

Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy, c. 120 - 140 CE of Leochares bronze original c. 350-325 BCE (120-140 CE)

Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy, c. 120 - 140 CE of Leochares bronze original c. 350-325 BCE

This nude statue, a little over seven feet tall, depicts Apollo, the Greek god of art and music, as he strides forward, having just shot an arrow from a bow which his extended left hand originally held. Realistic in its anatomical modeling, the work conveys a sense of gravity, both in his form as seen in the musculature of his weight-bearing right leg and in the folds of his chlamys , or robe, falling across his left arm. Contrapposto is employed innovatively to create a sense of complex movement, presenting the statue both frontally and in profile as the god strides forward majestically. While the statue is identified as the god by the headband he wears, reserved for gods or rulers, and his bow and the quiver across his left shoulder, he is also equally a symbol of youthful masculine beauty. The work has also been called the Pythian Apollo, as it was believed to depict Apollo's slaying of the Python, a mythical serpent at Delphi, marking the moment when the site became sacred to the god and home of the famous Delphic Oracle. The marble statue is believed to be a Roman copy of an original bronze from the 4 th century by the Greek sculptor Leochares. The work was discovered in 1489 and became part of the collection of Cardinal Giulano della Rovere who, subsequently, became Pope Julius II, the leading patron of the Italian High Renaissance. He put the work on public display in 1511, and Michelangelo's student, the sculptor Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, restored the missing parts of the left hand and right arm. Much acclaimed, the work was sketched by Michelangelo, Bandinelli, Goltzius, and Albrecht Dürer who modeled Adam upon Apollo in his engraving Adam and Eve (1504). Marcantonio Raimondi made a copy of the Apollo, and his engraving in the 1530s was widely disseminated throughout Europe; however, the work became most influential in the 1700s as Winckelmann, the pioneering German art historian, wrote, "Of all the works of antiquity that have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo represents the highest ideal of art." The work became fundamental to the development of Neoclassicism as seen in Antonio Canova's Perseus (1804-1806) modeled after the work. As art critic Jonathan Jones noted, "The work was admired two hundred years ago as an image of the absolute rational clarity of Greek civilisation and the perfect harmony of divine beauty," but in the Romantic era it fell into disfavor as the leading critics, John Ruskin, William Hazlitt, and Walter Pater critiqued it. Still, it has remained popular and frequently reproduced, lending it a cultural currency, as seen in the official seal of the 1972 Apollo XVII moon landing mission.

Marble - Vatican City

The Dying Gaul, Roman marble copy of Greek bronze by Epigonus (230-220 BCE)

The Dying Gaul, Roman marble copy of Greek bronze by Epigonus

This Roman copy of a Greek Hellenistic work depicts a nude and dying man, identified as a Gaul or more specifically a Galatian, a member of a Celtic tribe in Pergamon, a Greek city in Turkey. Sitting on the ground, his left hand grasping his left knee, and his right hand resting upon a broken sword as he holds himself up, he looks down as if contemplating his end. His extended legs and the twist of his torso suggest pain and immanent collapse. The work is realistic and emotionally expressive, as the tension between tensed and relaxed muscles conveys his struggle to fight off death. A pensive and somber feeling dominates the work, making it an intense reflection on defeat and mortality, while the idealization of his physical beauty suggests a heroic death. The statue was discovered sometime in the early 1600s at the Villa Ludovisi, the country residence of a wealthy and powerful Italian family, and was originally believed to depict a Roman gladiator. The work was popular and viewing it became a necessary part of the Grand Tour undertaken by young aristocrats in the 18 th and 19 th centuries. The British Romantic poet, Lord Byron whose famous poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) was written following his Grand Tour, wrote, "I see before me the gladiator lie/ He leans upon his hand - his manly brow/ Consents to death, but conquers agony." Its popularity led to a proliferation of marble and plaster copies across Europe. In the 19 th century, scholars identified the subject as a Gaul, due to his hairstyle and the torque he wears on his neck, and Epigonus, a court appointed sculptor of Pergamon, as the original artist. The original was part of a complex sculpture group to celebrate Pergamon's victory over the Gauls and exemplifies what was called the "Pergamene Style," which as contemporary art critic Jerry Saltz noted, "emphasized emotional appeal and almost Baroque volatility. Nothing defines that style quite as clearly as the Dying Gaul , who is both tragic and sensual, firing both our desire and our sense of compassion."

Marble - Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy

Winged Victory of Samothrace (200-190 BCE)

Winged Victory of Samothrace

This monumental work, depicting Nike, the goddess of victory, and created in honor of a naval victory, emphasizes dynamic movement, as the goddess surges forward, swept by the wind, her wings unfurled behind her. As art historian H.W. Jansen wrote, "This invisible force of on-rushing air here becomes a tangible reality; it not only balances the forward movement of the figure but also shapes every fold of the wonderfully animated drapery. As a result, there is an active relationship - indeed, and interdependence - between the statue and the space that envelops it, such as we have never seen before." Over 18 feet tall, the Hellenistic statue stands on a pedestal, placed upon a base that resembles the prow of a ship. Most scholars believe the work was originally placed at the Sanctuary of the Greek Gods, a temple complex overlooking the harbor on the island of Samothrace. Charles Champoiseau, a French envoy, discovered the fragmented statue in 1863 and sent it to Paris where it was reassembled and placed in the Louvre, famously dominating the view up the grand staircase. The work influenced a number of modern artists and movements, as Umberto Boccioni's Futuristic work Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) references the statue, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti also referenced it in his Futurist Manifesto (1903). The American sculptors Samuel Murray and Augustus Saint-Gaudens created Nike-like figures, as seen in Saint Gauden's Sherman Memorial (1903) and the statue was a favorite work of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who included reproductions of it in a number of his residential designs. Yves Klein painted a number of plaster copies, painted in his International Klein Blue and using a resin he named Victoire de Samatrace , and more recently, Banksy's CCTV Angel (2006) repurposed the figure.

Parian Marble - Louvre Museum, Paris

Alexandros of Antioch: Venus de Milo (130-100 BCE)

Venus de Milo

Artist: Alexandros of Antioch

Believed to portray Venus, the goddess of love, this six-and-a-half-foot statue creates dynamic visual movement with its accentuated s-curve, emphasizing the curve of the torso and hip, as the lower part of her body is draped in the realistic folds of her falling robe. The dramatic contrapposto , her left knee raised as if lifting her foot off the ground, further emphasizes her movement, as she turns toward the viewer. The work was originally attributed to Praxiteles but is now generally credited to Alexandros of Antioch. Scholarly dispute continues about the identity of its subject; traditionally identified as Venus, some scholars believe the work actually portrays Amphitrite, a sea goddess, worshipped on the island of Milo where the sculpture was found in 1820, and some contemporary scholars have suggested the figure may in fact portray a prostitute. The statue was made from several pieces of marble, two blocks used for the body, while other parts, including the legs and left arm, were sculpted individually and then attached. When excavated in 1820, part of an arm and a fragmented hand holding a round orb were discovered with the statue, which stood upon a stone plinth. At the time, the fragments were discarded, due to their 'rougher' finish, and later so was the plinth. It's believed that, originally, the statue was brightly painted and adorned with expensive jewelry. During his Italian campaign Napoleon Bonaparte took the Medici Venus (1 st century BCE), then the most renowned classical female nude, to France and installed it in the Louvre. But in 1815 the French returned the Medici Venus and bought the Venus de Milo , which they promoted both as the finest classical work and a model of feminine grace and beauty. More than any other classical sculpture, this iconic nude has greatly influenced both modern art and culture, due to its compelling ideal of feminine beauty and its beguiling mystery. As art critic Jonathan Jones writes, "The Venus de Milo is an accidental surrealist masterpiece. Her lack of arms makes her strange and dreamlike. She is perfect but imperfect, beautiful but broken - the body as a ruin. That sense of enigmatic incompleteness has transformed an ancient work of art into a modern one." Salvador Dalí's Venus de Milo with Drawers (1936) copied the work but inserted pull drawers with pink pompom handles into the torso. As Jones noted, the Venus de Milo has retained its contemporary artistic relevance because it "entered European culture in the 19th century just as artists and writers were rejecting the perfect and timeless." As a result, the work haunts the modern imagination, referenced in literature, films, and television episodes and used in any number of advertisements, while its impact on cultural concepts of feminine beauty can be seen in the American Society of Plastic Surgeons' use of the figure on its seal in 1930.

Marble - Louvre Museum, Paris

Agesandro, Athendoros, and Polydoros: Laocoön and His Sons (27 BCE - 68 CE)

Laocoön and His Sons

Artist: Agesandro, Athendoros, and Polydoros

This famous work depicts the doomed struggle of Laocoön, and his two sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus caught in the coils of two giant poisonous sea serpents, one of them biting Laocoön's hip. His hand grasps the snake's neck as he tries to fend it off. On the left, the youngest boy, dying from the poison, has collapsed, his legs caught in the coils that lift him off the ground. The central figure is the father, whose powerful muscular form twists upward and backward, his despairing and contorted gaze turned heavenward, as his son on the right turns to look pleadingly at him. Drawing upon the story of the Trojan war, the work is thought to dramatically depict the moment when Laocoön, a priest of Troy who warned the Trojans against taking the Greek wooden horse into the city, was attacked, along with his two sons, by the serpents sent by the gods to silence him. As a result the frightened Trojans, fearing the gods' punishment, took in the wooden horse containing the Greek soldiers, who, hidden within it, came out at night to open the gates for the Greek army, leading to the fall of Troy. Art historian Nigel Spivey has called the work "the prototypical icon of human agony," and its dynamic sense of drama and its use of slightly unrealistic scale to emphasize paradoxically the father's power and helplessness made it innovative and a masterwork of the Hellenistic style. In 1506 the work was discovered during excavations of Rome and immediately drew the attention of Pope Julius II who sent Michelangelo to oversee the excavation. Its identification drew upon the ancient accounts of Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer, who described the work as located in the emperor Titus's palace and attributed it to the Rhodes sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus. The work greatly influenced Michelangelo, including some of his figures in the Sistine Chapel ceiling and his later sculpture. Raphael depicted Homer with Laocoon's face in his Parnassus , and Titian drew upon the work for his Averoldi Altarpiece (1520-24), as did Rubens for his Descent from the Cross . (1612-14). William Blake also referenced the sculpture, though within his own belief that imitations of Classical Art destroyed the creative imagination. The work informed a number of ongoing debates, as to whether sculpture or painting were more primary, and has played a role in modern discourses, as seen in Irving Babbit's (1910) The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910) and Clement Greenberg's Towards a Newer Laocoön (1940), where he argued for abstract art as the new, equivalent, ideal. The Henry Moore Institute held a 2007 exhibition with this title while showing modern works influenced by the statue, and contemporary artist Sanford Biggers has referenced the work within his contemporary installation pieces.

Augustus of Prima Porta (1st Century CE)

Augustus of Prima Porta

This statue depicts Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, in military uniform, his right arm raised in a gesture of leadership, addressing the military and populace of Rome. His contrapposto pose, the muscular modeling of his breastplate, and his dispassionate expression are informed by Polycleitus's Doryphorus , as the emperor is presented as the new model of the universal male ideal. His breastplate is intricately carved with scenes and figures - including the sun, sky, and earth gods, a diplomatic victory over the Parthians, and female figures representing conquered countries - that establish him as a military leader, founder of the Pax Romana, and heir of Rome's mythological and historical traditions. Tugging at his right, a small cupid rides a dolphin that symbolizes Augustus's victory at the 31 BCE Battle of Actium over Mark Antony and Cleopatra, which made him sole ruler. At the same time, the cupid, representing Eros, a son of the goddess Venus, refers to Julius Caesar's claim that he was descended from the goddess. As Augustus was Caesar's grand-nephew and adopted heir, he establishes his divine patrimony and connects it to the legendary founding of Rome by Aeneas, the only mortal son of Venus and the only surviving Trojan prince. The statue is barefoot, a trope associated with portrayals of divinity, and as art critic Alastair Sooke noted, the work, "is not simply a portrait of Rome's first is also a vision of a god." Emerging victorious from a civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, Augustus launched a notable building campaign, saying later, "I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble." His image became a powerful propaganda tool, as art critic Roderick Conway Morris wrote, "He projected his image through art and architecture and...this gave birth to a new classical Roman style, which would long outlive the first emperor and influence imperial and dynastic art over the next two millennia." As a result, more images of Augustus in statues, busts, coins, and cameos, all depicting him as this ever youthful and virile leader, survive than of any other Roman emperor. While Romans were known for their exacting portraiture, Augustus insisted on the idealized, youthful image throughout his reign to distance himself from any unrest in the empire. The work was rediscovered following its excavations in 1863 at Prima Porta, a villa which belonged to Augustus's wife, and as Sooke wrote, "Since its rediscovery, this charismatic work of art has become a symbol of ancient Rome's peculiar blend of refinement and ruthless military might." As a result, it has had a somewhat notorious afterlife, as when the Italian dictator Mussolini held an art exhibition in 1937 dedicated to Augustus and included this work in order to identify Fascist Italy with a new Roman Empire.

Pantheon (113-125 CE)

The circular temple faces the street with a monumental portico, employing eight Corinthian columns at the front with double rows of four columns behind, to create an imposing entrance. The façade, evoking the octastyle of the Athenian Parthenon, also emphasized that Rome was the heir of the classical tradition. The large granite columns rise to an entablature with an inscription reading "Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this] when consul for the third time." Though Agrippa's temple, built during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), burned down, the Emperor Hadrian retained the inscription when he rebuilt the temple. The building's innovative and distinctive feature was its concrete dome; with a height and diameter of 142 feet, still, the world's largest dome made of unreinforced concrete. The interior was equally innovative, as the dome rose above a circular interior chamber, illuminated by an oculus opening to the sky in the center of the coffered dome, creating a sense of both an imperial and divine space. "Pantheon" means "relating to the gods," and scholars continue to debate whether this meant the temple was dedicated to all the gods or followed tradition in being dedicated to a specific god. Specific dedications to single gods were considered more provident since, if any mishap struck, the people would know which god had been offended and could offer sacrifices. When Agrippa first built the temple, it was part of the Agrippa complex (29-19 BCE) that also included the Baths of Agrippa and the Basilica of Neptune, and it is thought that the façade is what remains of his original structure. The building is one of the best preserved from the Imperial Roman era, as it was turned into a Christian church in the 7 th century, though it has also been altered, and many of the relief sculptures of gilded bronze were melted down. The work influenced Filippo Brunelleschi's dome of Florence Cathedral in 1436, a radical design that transformed architecture and informed the development of the Italian Renaissance. The Pantheon also informed the Baroque movement, as seen in Bernini's Santa Maria Assunta (1664), and the Neoclassical movement, as seen in Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda (1817-26) on the grounds of the University of Virginia.

Marble, concrete, bronze, stone - Rome, Italy

Beginnings of Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

Mycenaean influences 1600-1100 bce.

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Considered the first Greeks, the Mycenaeans had a lasting influence on later Greek art, architecture, and literature. A bronze age civilization that extended through modern day southern Greece as well as coastal regions of modern day Turkey, Italy, and Syria, Mycenaea was an elite warrior society dominated by palace states. Divided into three classes - the king's attendants, the common people, and slaves - each palace state was ruled by a king with military, political, and religious authority. The society valorized heroic warriors and made offerings to a pantheon of gods. In later Greek literature, including Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey , the exploits of these warriors and gods engaged in the Trojan War had become legendary and, in fact, appropriated by later Greeks as their founding myths.

The Lion Gate (1250 BCE) at the entrance to a citadel in Mycenae exemplifies Cyclopean masonry and is the only surviving large scale Mycenaean sculpture.

Agriculture and trade were the economic engines driving Mycenaean expansion, and both activities were enhanced by the engineering genius of the Mycenaeans, as they constructed harbors, dams, aqueducts, drainage systems, bridges, and an extended network of roads that remained unrivaled until the Roman era. Innovative architects, they developed Cyclopean masonry, using large boulders, fit together without mortar, to create massive fortifications. The name for Cyclopean stonework came from the later Greeks, who believed that only the Cyclops, fierce one-eyed giants of myth and legend, could have lifted the stones. To lighten the heavy load above gates and doorways, the Mycenaeans also invented the relieving triangle, a triangular space above the lintel that was left open or filled with lighter materials.

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The Mycenaeans first developed the acropolis, a fortress or citadel, built on a hill that characterized later Greek cities. The king's palace, centered on a megaron , or circular throne room with four columns, was decorated with vividly colored frescoes of marine life, battle, processions, hunting, and gods and goddesses.

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Scholars still debate how the Mycenaean civilization declined, and theories include invasions, internal conflict, and natural disasters. The era was followed by what has been called the Greek Dark Ages, though it is also known as the Homeric Age and the Geometric period. The term Homeric Age refers to Homer whose poems narrated the Trojan War and its aftermath. The term Geometric period refers to the era's style of vase painting, which primarily employed geometric motifs and patterns.

Greek Archaic Period 776-480 BCE

This amphora (c 570-565 BCE) shows a number of warriors in combat depicted in the black-figure style.

The Archaic Period began in 776 BCE with the establishment of the Olympic Games. Greeks believed that the athletic games, which emphasized human achievement, set them apart from "barbarian," non-Greek peoples. The Greeks' valorization of the Mycenaean era as a heroic golden age led them to idealize male athletes, and the male figure became dominant subjects of Greek art. The Greeks felt that the male nude showed not only the perfection and beauty of the body but also the nobility of character.

The Greeks developed a political and social structure based upon the polis, or city-state. While Argus was a leading center of trade in the early part of the era, Sparta, a city state that emphasized military prowess, grew to be the most powerful. Athens became the pioneering force in the art, culture, science, and philosophy that became the basis of Western civilization. Though the era was dominated by the rule of tyrants, Solon, a philosopher king, became the ruler of Athens around 594 BCE and established notable reforms. He created the Council of Four Hundred, a body that could question and challenge the king, ended the practice of putting people into slavery for their debts, and established a ruling class based on wealth rather than descent. Extensive sea-faring trade drove the Greek economy, and Athens, along with other city-states, began establishing trading posts and settlements throughout the Mediterranean. As a result of these forays, Greek cultural values spread to other cultures, including the Etruscans in southern Italy, influencing and co-mingling with them.

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Figurative sculpture was the greatest artistic innovation of the Archaic period as it emphasized realistic, though idealized, figures. Influenced by Egyptian sculpture, the Greeks transformed the frontal poses of pharaohs and other notables into works known as kouros (young men) and kore (young women), life-sized sculptures that were first developed in the Cyclades islands in the 7 th century BCE. During the late Archaic period, individual sculptors, including Antenor, Kritios, and Nesiotes, were celebrated, and their names preserved for posterity.

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The late Archaic period was marked by new reforms, as the Athenian lawgiver Cleisthenes established new policies in 508BC that led to him being dubbed "the father of democracy." To celebrate the end of the rule of tyrants, he commissioned the sculptore Antenor to complete a bronze statue, The Tyrannicides (510 BCE), depicting Harmonides and Aristogeion, who had assassinated Hipparchos, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, in 514 BCE. Though the two were executed for the crime, they became symbols of the movement toward democracy that led to the expulsion of Hippias four years later and were considered to be the only contemporary Greeks worthy enough to be granted immortality in art. The commission of Antenor's work was the first public funded art commission, and the subject was so resonant that, when Antenor's work was taken during the 483 BCE Persian invasion, Kritios was commissioned to create a replacement. Kritios's The Tyrannicides (c. 477 BCE) developed what has been called the severe style, or the Early Classical style, as he depicted realistic movement and individual characterization, which had a great influence on subsequent sculpture.

Classical Greece 480-323 BCE

This Roman bust with the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian,” is a copy of a Greek original (c. 430 BCE).

Classical Greece, also known as the Golden Age, became fundamental both to the later Roman Empire and western civilization, in philosophy, politics, literature, science, art, and architecture. The great Greek historian of the era Thucydides, called the general and populist statesman Pericles "Athens's first citizen." Equal rights for citizens (which only meant adult Greek males), democracy, freedom of speech, and a society ruled by an assembly of citizens defined Greek government. Pericles launched the rebuilding of the Parthenon (447-432 BCE) in Athens, a project overseen by his friend, the sculptor Phidias, and established Athens as the most powerful city state, expanding its influence throughout the Mediterranean region.

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The Classical era also saw the establishment of Western philosophy in the teachings and writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The philosophy of Socrates survived through Plato's written accounts of his teacher's dialogues, and Plato went on to found the Academy in Athens around 387 BCE, an early prototype of all later academies and universities. Many leaders studied at the Academy, including most notably Aristotle, and it became a leading force known throughout the world for the importance of scientific and philosophical inquiry based upon the belief in reason and knowledge. While their philosophies diverged in key respects, Plato and Aristotle concurred in seeing art as an imitation of nature, aspiring to the beautiful.

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Additionally, the emphasis on individuality resulted in a more personalized art, and individual artists, including Phidias, Praxiteles, and Myron, became celebrated. Funerary sculpture began depicting real people (instead of idealized types) with emotional expression, while at the same time, bronze works idealized the human form, particularly the male nude. Praxiteles, though, pioneered the female nude in his Aphrodite of Knidos (4th century BCE), a work that has been referenced time and time again in the ensuing centuries.

Hellenistic Greek 323-31 BCE

The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE marked the beginning of the Hellenistic period. Having amassed a vast empire beyond Greece that included parts of Asia, North Africa, Europe and not having named a successor instigated a war between Alexander's generals for control of his empire, and local leaders jockeyed to regain control of their regions. Eventually, three generals agreed to a power-sharing relationship and carved the Greek empire into three different regions. While the mainland Greek cultural influence declined, Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in modern day Syria became important centers of Hellenistic culture. Many Greeks emigrated to other parts of the fractured empire, "Hellenizing the world," as art historian John Griffiths Pedley wrote.

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Despite the splintering of the empire, great wealth led to royal patronage of the arts, particularly in sculpture, painting, and architecture. Alexander the Great's official sculptor had been Lysippus who, working in bronze after Alexander's death, created works that marked a transition from the Classical to the Hellenistic style. Some of the most famous works of Greek art, including the Venus de Milo (130-100 BCE) and the Winged Victory of Samothrace (200-190 BCE) were created in the era.

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Architecture turned toward urban planning, as cities created complex parks and theaters for leisure. Temples took on colossal proportions, and the architectural style employed the Corinthian order, the most decorative of Classical orders. Pergamon became a vital center of culture, known for its colossal complexes, as exemplified by in the Pergamon Altar (c. 166-156 BCE) with its extensive and dramatic friezes. During the Hellenistic period, the Greeks gradually fell to the rule of the Roman Republic, as Rome conquered Macedonia in the Battle of Corinth in 146 BCE. Upon his death in 133 BCE, King Attalus III left the Kingdom of Pergamon to the Romans. Though Greek rebellions followed, they were crushed in the following century.

Roman Republic 509 BCE - 26 CE

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Rome began as a city-state ruled by kings, who were elected by the nobleman of the Roman Senate, and then became a Republic when Lucius Tarquinii Superbus, the last king, was expelled in 509BC. Because his son had raped Lucretia, a married noblewoman, who took her own life, Tarquinii was deposed by her husband, her father, and Lucius Junius Brutus, Tarquinii's nephew. The story became both part of Roman history and a subject depicted in art throughout the following centuries.

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With the kingship abolished, the Republic was established with a new system of government led by two consuls. As the patricians, the upper class who governed Rome, were often in conflict with the plebeians, or common people, an emphasis was put upon city planning, including apartment buildings called insulae and public entertainments that featured gladiator fights and horse races to keep the people happy, a type of rule that the Roman poet Juvenal described as "bread and circuses." Cities were planned on a grid system, while architecture and engineering projects were transformed by the development of concrete in the 3 rd century. Rome was primarily a military state, frequently at war with neighboring tribes in Italy at the beginning. Various military campaigns resulted in the conquest and destruction of Carthage, a North African kingdom, in three Punic wars, the conquest of the Macedonia and its eastern territories, and Greece in the 2 nd century BCE resulted in geographically expansive empire.

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Roman culture adopted many of the myths, gods, and heroic stories of the Greeks, while emphasizing their own tradition of the mas majorum , the way of the ancestors, a kind of contractual obligation with the gods and the founding fathers of Rome. Greek works, taken as spoils of war, were extensively copied and displayed in Roman homes and became a primary influence upon Roman art and architecture. The rise of Julius Caesar, following his triumph over the Gauls in northern Europe, marked the end of the Republic, as he was assassinated in 44 BCE by a number of senators in order to prevent him being declared emperor. His death plunged the Republic into a civil war, fought by his former general Marc Antony allied with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, against the forces of Pompeius and the forces of Caesar's great nephew and heir, Octavian.

Imperial Rome 27 BCE - 393 CE

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While the assassins may have staved off the crowning of Caesar as emperor, eventually an emperor was named. Imperial Rome begins with the crowning of Octavian as the first emperor, who came to be known as Augustus. In his almost forty-five year reign, he transformed the city, establishing public services, including the first police force, fire fighting force, postal system, and municipal offices, while creating revenue and taxation systems that were the blueprint for the Empire in the following centuries. He also launched a new building program that included temples and notable public buildings, and he transformed the arts, commissioning works like the Augustus of Prima Porta (1 st century CE) that depicted him as an ideal leader in a classical style that harkened back to Greece. He also commissioned The Aeneid (29-19 BCE) an epic poem by the poet Virgil that defined Rome and became a canonical work of Western literature. The poem described the mythical founding of Rome, relating the journey of Aeneas, the son of Venus and Prince of Troy, who fled the Sack of Troy to arrive in Italy, where, fighting and defeating the Etruscan rulers, he founded Rome.

The Imperial era was defined by the monumental grandeur of its architecture and its luxurious lifestyle, as wealthy residences were lavishly decorated with colorful frescoes, and the upper class, throughout the Empire, commissioned portraits. The Empire ended with the Sack of Rome in 393 CE, though by that time, its power had already declined, due to increasingly capricious emperors, internal conflict, and rebellion in its provinces. The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity and the moving of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople in 313 CE established the rising power of the Byzantine Empire.

Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

The golden ratio.

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The Greeks believed that truth and beauty were closely associated, and noted philosophers understood beauty in largely mathematical terms. Socrates said, "Measure and proportion manifest themselves in all areas of beauty and virtue," and Aristotle advocated for the golden mean, or the middle way, that led to a virtuous and heroic life by avoiding extremes. For the Greeks, beauty derived from the combination of symmetry, harmony, and proportion. The golden ratio, a concept based on the proportions between two quantities, as defined by the mathematicians Pythagoras (6 th century BCE) and Euclid (323-283 BCE), was thought to be the most beautiful proportion. The golden ratio indicates that the ratio between two quantities is the same as the ratio between the larger of the two and their sum. The Parthenon (447-432 BCE) employed the golden ratio in its design and was fêted as the most perfect building imaginable. Because the artist Phidias oversaw the building of the temple, the golden ratio became commonly known by the Greek letter phi , in honor of Phidias. The golden ratio had a noted impact on later artists and architects, influencing the Roman architect Vitruvius, whose principles informed the Renaissance, as seen in the work and theory of Leon Battista Alberti , and modern architects, including Le Corbusier .

Greek Architecture

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Best known for its temples, using a rectangular design framed by colonnades open on all sides, Greek architecture emphasized formal unity. The building became a sculptural presence on a high hill, as art historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote, "The plastic shape of the [Greek] temple ... placed before us with a physical presence more intense, more alive than that of any later building."

The Greeks developed the three orders - the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian - which became part of the fundamental architectural vocabulary of Rome and subsequently much of Europe and the United States. Developed in different parts of Greece and at different times, the distinction between the orders is primarily based upon the differences between the columns themselves, their capitals, and the entablature above them. The Doric order is the simplest, using smooth or fluted columns with circular capitals, while the entablature features add a more complex decorative element above the simple columns. The Ionic column uses volutes , from the Latin word for scroll, as a decorative element at the top of the capital, and the entablature is designed so that a narrative frieze extends the length of the building. The late Classical Corinthian order, named for the Greek city of Corinth, is the most decorative, using elaborately carved capitals with an acanthus leaf motif.

Polycleitus the Younger, the son of the noted sculptor Polycleitus, designed the ancient Greek theater (4th century BCE) at Epidauros.

Originally, Greek temples were often built with wood, using a kind of post and beam construction, though stone and marble were increasingly employed. The first temple to be built entirely of marble was the Parthenon (447-432 BCE). Greek architecture also pioneered the amphitheater, the agora , or public square surrounded by a colonnade, and the stadium.The Romans appropriated these architectural structures, creating monumental amphitheaters and revisioning the agora as the Roman forum, an extensive public square that featured hundreds of marble columns.

Roman Architecture and Engineering

The Colosseum (72-80 CE), one of the most famous of Roman structures, could hold up to 60,000 spectators for the gladiatorial games and animal hunts staged there.

Roman architecture was so innovative that it has been called the Roman Architectural Revolution, or the Concrete Revolution, based on its invention of concrete in the 3 rd century. The technological development meant that the form of a structure was no longer constrained by the limitations of brick and masonry and led to the innovative employment of the arch, the barrel vault, the groin vault, and the dome. These new innovations ushered in an age of monumental architecture, as seen in the Colosseum and civil engineering projects, including aqueducts, apartment buildings, and bridges. The Romans, as architectural historian D.S. Robertson wrote, "were the first builders in Europe, perhaps the first in the world, fully to appreciate the advantages of the arch, the vault and the dome." They pioneered the segmental arch - essentially a flattened arch, used in bridges and private residences - the extended arch, and the triumphal arch, which celebrated the emperors' great victories. But it was their employment of the dome that had the most significant impact on Western civilization. Though influenced by the Etruscans, particularly in their use of arches and hydraulic techniques, and the Greeks, Romans still used columns, porticos, and entablatures even when technological innovations no longer required them structurally.

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Though little is known of his life beyond his work as a military engineer for Emperor Augustus, Vitruvius was the most noted Roman architect and engineer, and his De architectura ( On Architecture ) (30-15 BCE), known as Ten Books on Architecture , became a canonical work of subsequent architectural theory and practice. His treatise was dedicated to Emperor Augustus, his patron, and was meant to be a guide for all manner of building projects. His work described town planning, residential, public, and religious building, as well as building materials, water supplies and aqueducts, and Roman machinery, such as hoists, cranes, and siege machines. As he wrote, "Architecture is a science arising out of many other sciences, and adorned with much and varied learning." His belief that a structure should have the qualities of stability, unity, and beauty became known as the Vitruvian Triad. He saw architecture imitating nature in its proportionality and ascribed this proportionality to the human form as well, famously expressed later in Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (1490).

Vase Painting

The Hirschfeld Krater (mid-8th century BCE), showing a scene of a procession carrying a body to the tomb, exemplifies a late Geometric work.

Vase painting was a noted element of Greek art and provides the best example of how Greek painting focused primarily on portraying the human form and evolved toward increased realism. The earliest style was geometric, employing patterns influenced by Mycenaean art, but quickly turned to the human figure, similarly stylized. An "Orientalizing" period followed, as Eastern motifs, including the sphinx, were adopted to be followed by a black figure style, named for its color scheme, that used more accurate detail and figurative modeling.

The Classical era developed the red figure style of vase painting, which created the figures by strongly outlining them against a black background and allowed for their details to be painted rather than incised into the clay. As a result, variations of color and of line thickness allowed for more curving and rounded shapes than were present in the Geometric style of vases.

Greek and Roman Painting

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While Classical Art is noted primarily for its sculpture and architecture, Greek and Roman artists made innovations in both fresco and panel painting. Most of what is known of Greek painting is ascertained primarily from painting on pottery and from Etruscan and later Roman murals, which are known to have been influenced by Greek artists and, sometimes, painted by them, as the Greeks established settlements in Southern Italy where they introduced their art. Hades Abducting Persephone (4 th century BCE) in the Vergina tombs in Macedonia is a rare example of a Classical era mural painting and shows an increased realism that parallels their experiments in sculpture.

This fresco from the Villa of Mysteries (80 BCE) is believed to depict a religious rite, as women or the Bacchae, worshipped the god Dionysius.

Roman panel and fresco paintings survived in greater number than Greek paintings. The 1748 excavation of Pompeii, a Roman city that was buried almost instantaneously in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, led to the groundbreaking discovery of many relatively well-preserved frescos in noted Roman residences, including the House of the Vettii, the Villa of Mysteries, and the House of the Tragic Poet. Fresco paintings brought a sense of light, space, and color into interiors that, lacking windows, were often dark and cramped. Preferred subjects included mythological accounts, tales from the Trojan war, historical accounts, religious rituals, erotic scenes, landscapes, and still lifes. Additionally, walls were sometimes painted to resemble brightly colored marble or alabaster panels, enhanced by illusionary beams or cornices.

Greek Sculpture

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Influenced by the Egyptians, the Greeks in the Archaic period began making life-sized sculptures, but rather than portraying pharaohs or gods, Greek sculpture largely consisted of kouroi , of which there were three types - the nude young man, the dressed and standing young woman, and a seated woman. Famous for their smiling expressions, dubbed the "Archaic smile", the sculptures were used as funerary monuments, public memorials, and votive statues. They represented an ideal type rather than a particular individual and emphasized realistic anatomy and human movement, as New York Times art critic Alastair Macaulay wrote, "The kouros is timeless; he might be about to breathe, move, speak."

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In the late Archaic period a few sculptors like Kritios became known and celebrated, a trend which became even more predominant during the Classical era, as Phidias, Polycleitus, Myron, Scopas, Praxiteles, and Lysippus became legendary. Myron's Discobolos , or "discus thrower," (460-450 BCE) was credited as being the first work to capture a moment of harmony and balance. Increasingly, artists focused their attention on a mathematical system of proportions that Polycleitus described in his Canon of Polycleitus and emphasized symmetry as a combination of balance and rhythm. Polycleitus created Doryphoros ( Spear-Bearer ) (c.440 BCE) to illustrate his theory that "perfection comes about little by little through many numbers."

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Most of the original Greek bronzes have been lost, as the value of the material led to their frequently being melted down and reused, particularly in the early Christian era where they were viewed as pagan idols. A few notable examples have survived, such as the Charioteer of Delphi (478 or 474 BCE), which was found in 1896 in a temple buried in a rockslide. Other works, including the Raice bronzes (460-450 BCE) and the Artemison Bronze (c.460) were retrieved from the sea. The earliest Greek bronzes were sphyrelaton , or hammered sheets, attached together with rivets; however, by the late Archaic period, around 500 BCE, the Greeks began employing the lost-wax method. To make large-scale sculptures, the works were cast in various pieces and then welded together, with copper inlaid to create the eyes, teeth, lips, fingernails, and nipples to give the statue a lifelike appearance.

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Along with sculpture in the round, the Greeks employed relief sculpture to decorate the entablatures of temples with extensive friezes that often depicted mythological and legendary battles and mythological scenes. Created by Phidias, the Parthenon Marbles (c. 447-438 BCE), also known as the Elgin Marbles, are the most famous examples. Created on metopes , or panels, the relief sculptures decorated the frieze lining the interior chamber of the temple and, renowned for their realism and dynamic movement, had a noted influence upon later artists, including Auguste Rodin.

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The Greeks also made colossal chryselephantine, or ivory and gold statues, beginning in the Archaic period. Phidias was acclaimed for both his Athena Parthenos (447 BCE), a nearly forty foot tall statue that resided in the Parthenon on the Acropolis, and his Statue of Zeus at Olympia (435 BCE) that was forty three feet tall and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Both statues used a wooden structure with gold panels and ivory limbs attached in a kind of modular construction. They were not only symbols of the gods but also symbols of Greek wealth and power. Both works were destroyed, but small copies of Athena exist, and representations on coins and descriptions in Greek texts survive.

Roman Portraiture

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Many Roman sculptures were copies of Greek originals, but their own contribution to Classical sculpture came in the form of portraiture. Emphasizing a realistic approach, the Romans felt that depicting notable men as they were, warts and all, was a sign of character. In contrast, in Imperial Rome, portraiture turned to idealistic treatments, as emperors, beginning with Augustus, wanted to create a political image, showing them as heirs of both classical Greece and Roman history. As a result, a Greco-Roman style developed in sculptural relief as seen in the Augustan Ara Pacis (13 BCE).

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The Romans also revived a method of Greek glass painting to use for portraiture. Most of the images were the size of medallions or roundels cut out of a drinking vessel. Wealthy Romans would have drinking cups made with a gold glass portrait of themselves and, following the owner's death, the portrait would be cut out in a circular shape and cemented into the catacomb walls as a tomb marker.

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Some of the most famous painted Roman portraits are the Fayum mummy portraits, named for the place in Egypt where they were found, that covered the faces of the mummified dead. Preserved by Egypt's arid climate, the portraits constitute the largest surviving group of portrait panel painting from the Classical era. Most of the mummy portraits were created between the 1 st century BCE and the 3 rd century CE and reflect the intertwining of Roman and Egyptian traditions, during the time when Egypt was under Rome's rule. Though idealized, the paintings display remarkably individualistic and naturalistic characteristics.

Later Developments - After Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

The influence of Classical Art and architecture cannot be overestimated, as it extends to all art movements and periods of Western art. While Roman architecture and Greek art influenced the Romanesque and Byzantine periods, the influence of Classical Art became dominant in the Italian Renaissance, founded upon a revival of interest in Classical principles, philosophy, and aesthetic ideals. The Parthenon and the Pantheon as well as the writings of Vitruvius informed the architectural theories and practice of Leon Battista Alberti and Palladio and designs into the modern era, including those of Le Corbusier .

Greek sculpture influenced Renaissance artists Michelangelo , Albrecht Dürer , Leonardo da Vinci , Raphael , and the later Baroque artists, including Bernini . The discoveries at Pompeii informed the aesthetic theories of Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the 18 th century and the development of Neoclassicism , as seen in Antonio Canova's sculptures. The modern sculptor Auguste Rodin was influenced primarily by the Parthenon Marbles, of which he wrote, they "had...a rejuvenating influence, and those sensations caused me to follow Nature all the more closely in my studies." Artists from the Futurist Umberto Boccioni , the Surrealist Salvador Dalí , and the multifaceted Pablo Picasso , to, later, Yves Klein , Sanford Biggers, and Banksy all cited Greek art as an influence.

Classical Art has also influenced other art forms, as both the choreography of Isidore Cunningham and Merce Cunningham were influenced by the Parthenon Marbles, and the first fashion garment featured in the Museum of Modern Art in 2003 was Henriette Negrin and Mariano Fortuny y Madrazos' Delphos Gown (1907) a silk dress inspired by the Charioteer Delphi (c. 500 BCE) which had been discovered a decade earlier. The legends, gods, philosophies and art of the Classical era became essential elements of subsequent Western culture and consciousness.

Useful Resources on Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

Greek Mythology: The Quest for the Gods

  • Treasures of Ancient Greece | 1 of 3 | The Age of Heroes Our Pick BBC

NOVA Short | Optical Tricks of the Parthenon

  • Seeing the Parthenon through Greek Eyes Joan Breton Connelly, author of "The Parthenon Enigma," joins Jeffrey Brown
  • Vestiges of an ancient Greek art form, preserved by catastrophe January 25, 2016

Desirability and domination: Greek sculpture and the modern male body (23 June 2011)

  • The Foundations of Classical Architecture: Roman Classicism Talk by Calder Loth
  • Greek Art (World of Art) By John Boardman
  • Roman Art By Nancy H. Romage and Andrew Romage
  • The Art & Architecture of Ancient Greece Our Pick By Nigel Rodgers
  • Roman Architecture Our Pick By Frank Sear
  • Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques Our Pick
  • How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles Our Pick By Juan Pablo Sanchez / National Geographic Magazine / March 4, 2017
  • If It Pleases the Gods By Caroline Alexander / New York Times / January 26, 2014
  • Why we're still up in arms about the mystery of the Venus de Milo Our Pick By Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / May 11, 2015
  • Deep-frieze By Daniel Mendelsohn / The New Yorker / April 14, 2014
  • When the Parthenon Had Dazzling Colours Our Pick By Natalie Haynes / BBC / January 22, 2018
  • A Look at Emperor Augustus and Roman Classical Style Our Pick By Roderick Conway Morris / New York Times / December 17, 2013
  • The Body Beautiful: The Classical Ideal in Ancient Greek Art By Alastair Macaulay / New York Times / May 18, 2015
  • The Latest Scheme for the Parthenon By Mary Beard / New York Review of Books / March 6, 2014
  • I, Augustus, Emperor of Rome..., at the Grand Palais in Paris, review: 'dazzling and charismatic' By Alastair Sooke / The Telegraph / March 18, 2014
  • The top 10 ancient Greek artworks By Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / August 14, 2014

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

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Guide to Ancient Greek Art

(3 reviews)

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Beth Harris

Steven Zucker

Copyright Year: 2019

Publisher: Smarthistory

Language: English

Formats Available

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Reviewed by Caroline Wilson, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Tidewater Community College on 7/27/22

This text covers a range and thorough summary of Greek periods in art history. read more

Comprehensiveness rating: 5 see less

This text covers a range and thorough summary of Greek periods in art history.

Content Accuracy rating: 5

The authors have done effective research and applied their knowledge comprehensibly and interestingly for the reader.

Relevance/Longevity rating: 5

The topic is a vital segment of the art historical timeline and the information provided is timeless.

Clarity rating: 5

Images selected in the text clarify the author’s point and provide helpful visual examples of Greek art historical trends described.

Consistency rating: 5

The writing styles of the authors are consistent.

Modularity rating: 5

The historical periods discussed build on one another.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 5

The overall organization of the text is linear along the art history timeline and flows flawlessly.

Interface rating: 5

The text is free of interface issues.

Grammatical Errors rating: 5

The text is well written.

Cultural Relevance rating: 5

The text is not culturally offensive and is inclusive.

This text provides a “go-to” resource for a better understanding of the overview of ancient Greek art history. Highly recommended reading for the art history enthusiast.

Reviewed by Joyce Miller, Professor of Art, Mount Wachusett Community College on 5/24/21

Dry and informative read more

Dry and informative

Strong and content as expected with research and references

covers topics as expected

Clarity rating: 3

Reading written statements of recorded conversations or interviews is not an interesting format for students. Tedious at best. Interesting for faculty maybe.

Consistency rating: 3

Format is structured but when researching on how black figure pottery was made I got linked to smarthistory -a youtube video from Art Institute of Chicago that was terrific but then when I went back to text it was not listed in the resources nor could I find it again via the text online. Going back to "Search" in this textbook was problematic when download of page numbers does not correspond to actual page numbers on the scrolled through pages. Will just simply directly search Youtube, Google or other sites for such information . Easier.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 4

Content organized but as stated earlier the additional course materials and links not so clear or organized

Interface rating: 4

Just the hunt and seek too time consuming

Only reviewed a few chapters and the Table of Contents, all seemed well written from what I perused.

Cultural Relevance rating: 4

Good images and overviews of Greek Pottery.

Reviewed by Tammy Cotton-Jennings, Lecturer/Art, Leeward Community College on 7/1/20

The textbook covers a lot of information, in a book of less than 200 pages. However, the content would be easier for those with some prior knowledge. This is more of a guide (as the title states), than an introduction to the subject. there is no... read more

Comprehensiveness rating: 4 see less

The textbook covers a lot of information, in a book of less than 200 pages. However, the content would be easier for those with some prior knowledge. This is more of a guide (as the title states), than an introduction to the subject. there is no index or glossary, but I do appreciate the ability to click on titles of chapters and get taken easily to each section.

I found no inaccuracies in the book. The material appears to have been researched thoroughly and is error free.

The content of this textbook is mostly up to date. It appears that the last changes, or additions were made in 2017. It would be easy to insert new articles, citations, and research to the content.

I found most of the chapters missing Introductions. It is assumed that the reader has already been exposed to Greek history and literature, as in the first paragraph of the book: "Ancient Greece can feel strangely familiar. From the exploits of Achilles (hero of Homer’s epic poem, the Illiad, about the Trojan war) and Odysseus (also known as Ulysses, the hero in Homer’s other epic poem, the Odyssey), to the treatises of Aristotle.." The sections on ancient Greek architecture and Greek Vase-Painting, by Dr. Renee M. Gondek and Dr. Jeffey A. Becker are very well done, whereas the sections on Classical, Hellenistic styles have no introductions, just conversations between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

The terminology and framework are consistent, and the images are well chosen.

Modularity rating: 3

I would be happy to use parts of this textbook in my class, and there are sections that would work easily. In other instances, I would have to re-write introductions.

The topics in the text have been organized well.

Everything to do with the interface and navigation works well in this textbook. I especially would like to point out the excellent quality of the images and their explanations.

I found no significant errors.

My only criticism of the text is in relation to the assumption that all students would have prior knowledge of some of the philosophical or literary references. "...thanks largely to ..... well-known literary sources, ....this civilization is embedded in our collective consciousness—"

As already mentioned, for an introductory course perhaps the book would benefit from a clear concise introduction to the ancient world. Also, I think the conversations between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. work very well in the smarthistory videos, but not as well in the textbook form.

Table of Contents

  • Part I. A beginner's guide
  • Part II. Pottery
  • Part III. Daedalic and Archaic
  • Part IV. Early Classical
  • Part V. Classical
  • Part VI. Late Classical
  • Part VII. Hellenistic

Ancillary Material

About the book.

This book contains all of Smarthistory’s content for Ancient Greek art.

About the Contributors

Ruth Ezra is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, where she specializes in the art of late-medieval and Renaissance Europe. Upon completion of her BA at Williams College, she studied in the UK on a Marshall Scholarship, earning an MPhil in history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge and an MA in history of art from the Courtauld Institute. A committed educator, Ruth has recently served as a Gallery Lecturer at both the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the National Galleries of Scotland, as well as a Teaching Fellow at Harvard.

Beth Harris is co-founder and executive director of Smarthistory. Previously, she was dean of art and history at Khan Academy and director of digital learning at The Museum of Modern Art, where she started MoMA Courses Online and co-produced educational videos, websites and apps. Before joining MoMA, Beth was Associate Professor of art history and director of distance learning at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she taught both online and in the classroom. She has co-authored, with Dr. Steven Zucker, numerous articles on the future of education and the future of museums, topics she regularly addresses at conferences around the world. She received her Master’s degree from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and her doctorate in Art History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Steven Zucker is co-founder and executive director of Smarthistory. Previously, Steven was dean of art and history at Khan Academy. He was also chair of history of art and design at Pratt Institute where he strengthened enrollment and lead the renewal of curriculum across the Institute. Before that, he was dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY and chair of their art history department. He has taught at The School of Visual Arts, Hunter College, and at The Museum of Modern Art. Dr. Zucker is a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. He has co-authored, with Dr. Beth Harris, numerous articles on the future of education and the future of museums, topics he regularly addresses at conferences around the world. Dr. Zucker received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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Sculpture of a fallen warrior from the Greek temple of Aphaia at Aegina, 6th century BC.

The top 10 ancient Greek artworks

Fallen warrior from temple of aphaia (c 480-470bc).

There is a tragic pathos to this mighty sculpture of a dying hero from a temple on the Greek island of Aegina. Tragedy is a Greek concept. The tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus are still performed. This statue shows a strong man fallen, heroic to his last breath.

The Pergamon altar (180-160BC)

Pergamon Altar. Athena against the giant Alcyoneus.

Classical Greek art changed rapidly as Greece itself went through wars and imperial transformations. In what is called the Hellenistic age it became much more emotional, sensual and even sensationalist. The furious sculptures on the Pergamon altar – which can be seen in its own museum in Berlin – are full of passion and psychological drama.

The Riace bronzes (460-420BC)

One of the two Riace bronzes: the Warrior

These tremendous statues found in the sea off southern Italy in 1972 are important because so few original Greek bronze statues survive. Most of the classical nudes in museums were carved in marble in the Roman era, as reproductions of such rare, and now largely lost, originals. Here we see the true majesty of Greek art in its classical age, which occurred in the fifth-century BC.

Goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon (c 438-432BC)

Three goddesses from east pediment of the Parthenon

Sitting and reclining in graceful unison, these goddesses carved in marble for the Parthenon in Athens are among the most beautiful and mysterious images of the human form ever created. Incredibly, the artist makes the draperies that cover their bodies as real and richly textured as similar garments painted by Leonardo da Vinci a millennium later – and who didn't have to produce his illusions in stone. These are dream goddesses.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (c 447-438BC)

Metope from Parthenon, battle between Centaurs and Lapiths

Violence is a favourite theme of ancient Greek artists. Reared on the myth of the Trojan war and experiencing the reality of wars with Persia and between Greek cities, classical artists found new ways to show conflict. This human fighting a centaur, carved for the Parthenon in Athens, is astonishingly real in its detail and dynamic energy.

God from the sea, Zeus or Poseidon (c 470BC)

A bronze sculpture of the god Zeus, or possibly Poseidon

This majestic bronze, found in the sea off Greece, conveys the magic of Greek mythology. The god – probably Zeus, lord of Olympus himself – is caught in the act of hurling a thunderbolt. His body is charged with divine power, and yet, it is a human body, neither colossal nor ethereal but the mirror of ourselves. The Greek gods are human, all too human, and their petty squabbles cause wars and sorrow in the world.

The Siren vase (480-470BC)

The Siren Vase

In Homer's Odyssey, one of the founding epics of Greek literature, Odysseus longs to hear the seductive yet dangerous song of the sirens that lure sailors to their deaths. So all his crew plug their ears, and Odysseus has himself lashed to the mast. This powerful painting captures the tension as Odysseus strains at his bonds, his whole body agonised, his head raised in rapt listening.

The Motya charioteer (c 350BC)

The Motya Charioteer

This is one of the most startling Greek statues to survive, and highly revealing about the erotic charge of the Greek nude. This youth is not technically nude, but wears a tight-fitting garment that instead of hiding his body, heightens every contour. Greek statues are portraits of human beauty that are meant to be arousing as well as noble. This athlete poses in sensual triumph.

The Dionysus Cup by Exekias (c 540BC)

Dionysus, god of wine and madness, sails on his boat, surrounded by dolphins, in this delightful painting. Part of the fascination of Greek art is that its themes were taken up by artists down the centuries, as the myths of this culture were constantly being rediscovered. So this image of Dionysus can be compared with later portrayals of the wine god by Titian, Michelangelo, or Cy Twombly.

Mask of Agamemnon (1550-1500BC)

Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Gold funerary mask

When the enthusiastic, romantically minded archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered this golden mask at Mycenae in 1876, he had no doubt that it must be the death mask of Agamemnon himself, the king who led the Greeks in the Trojan war, only to be assassinated on his homecoming. Of course there's no proof of that, but it is one of the most compelling faces in art.

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Transformation of the Ancient Greece Art Essay

In the course of its history, the culture of Ancient Greece underwent significant transformation. This paper is aimed at discussing these changes by looking at art. In particular, it is necessary to focus on sculptural works that were created between the years 650 and 100 before the Common Era.

These artworks can throw light on the development of Greek art during that period. To some extent, this development could be prompted by international relations of the Greek cities and the philosophical values which emerged in this culture. These are the main factors that should be taken into account.

At first, it is necessary to examine the sculptural works which belong to the archaic period of the Greek culture. In particular, one can mention such artworks as Kleobis and Biton, Dipylon Kouros , and the Moschophoros [1] . They were created during the period 600 and 570 BCE. At that time, Greek sculptors were influenced by the styles and techniques developed in Egypt and the Near East [2] .

For example, the hairdo of the people depicted by sculptors suggests that they could familiar with the culture of Ancient Persia. The viewers can see that the sculptures have anthropomorphic features. In other words, they resemble a human being. Nevertheless, the gender distinctions are not emphasized by the authors. This argument is particularly relevant if one speaks about such a sculpture as the Moschophoros . Overall, these artworks represent the archaic period of the Greek art.

In contrast, one can look at the sculptures created during the classical period. In particular, one can look at such examples as Diadumenos by Polyclitus, Artemision Bronze , or Venus Braschi [3] . It is possible to identify several differences in comparison with the previous group. First of all, the sculptors tried to portray subjects in a more realistic manner.

For example, gender distinctions are clearly visible. Moreover, the artists depicted people in different poses which are rather naturalistic. Yet, the most important aspect is that the authors tried to present an idealized image of a human body. [4] This is probably the main distinction of these artworks since these sculptures set the standards of physical beauty.

These transformations could have been caused by several important factors. In particular, one can mention the Greco-Persian Wars which started in 499. These international conflicts significantly diminished the influence of Persian culture on Greece. The techniques that one can see in the sculptures of the Archaic Period were rejected.

Moreover, the political culture and philosophy of that period set stress on such aspects as human dignity, liberty, and freedom. This is one of the reasons why sculptors tried to create an idealized image of a human being [5] . Therefore, it is possible to say that the transformation of political ideology and philosophy gave rise to artistic changes. These are the main issues that can be identified.

This discussion indicates at several important issues. First of all, Greek sculptors tended to imitate the examples and techniques developed in the Near East and Egypt. In this case, one should focus on the works of the archaic period.

However, this trend declined after the changes in the political and intellectual life of Ancient Greece, especially the growing value of human life. This trends prompted sculptors to portray people in an idealized way. Therefore, one can argue that art is closely related to social and political life in the community.

Picture 1: Kleobis and Biton

Kleobis and Biton Sculptures

Picture 2: Dipylon Kouros

Dipylon Kouros Sculpture

Picture 3 Moschophoros

Moschophoros Sculpture.

(Hurwit 27)

Picture 4: Diadumenos by Polyclitus

Diadumenos by Polyclitus

Picture 5: Artemision Bronze

Artemision Bronze Sculpture.

Picture 6: Venus Braschi

Venus Braschi Sculpture.

Works Cited

Gardner, Helen, and Fred Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History , New York: Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.

Hurwit, John. The Art and Culture of Early Greece: 1100-480 B. C , Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. Print.

Sacks, David. Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World , New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.

  • Please, refer to the Appendixes, Pictures 1, 2, and 3
  • Hurwit, John. The Art and Culture of Early Greece: 1100-480 B. C ( Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) 27.
  • Appendixes, Pictures 4. 5, and 6.
  • Sacks, David. Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World , ( New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009) 51.
  • Gardner, Helen, and Fred Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History (New York: Cengage Learning, 2012) 122.
  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

IvyPanda. (2021, September 8). Transformation of the Ancient Greece Art.

"Transformation of the Ancient Greece Art." IvyPanda , 8 Sept. 2021,

IvyPanda . (2021) 'Transformation of the Ancient Greece Art'. 8 September.

IvyPanda . 2021. "Transformation of the Ancient Greece Art." September 8, 2021.

1. IvyPanda . "Transformation of the Ancient Greece Art." September 8, 2021.


IvyPanda . "Transformation of the Ancient Greece Art." September 8, 2021.

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Critic’s Pick

Old-Time Modernity: Cycladic Art at the Met

A major collection of early Greek figures and vessels takes up long-term residence in New York — a transformative event.

A white marble sculpture encased in plexiglass, about four feet high, stands at the entrance of the exhibition.

By Roberta Smith

New York City has added another jewel to its glittering cultural crown, and it takes up little more than one medium-size wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

You’ll find the wall in the Belfer Court, the first space on the right as you enter the Greek and Roman Galleries from the Great Hall. Walk too fast and you may miss it. Slow down and prepare to be stunned by the largest display of ancient sculpture from the Greek islands known as the Cyclades ever seen in New York. It is titled “Cycladic Art: The Leonard N. Stern Collection on Loan from the Hellenic Republic.”

Five large vitrines, usually three pairs of shelves each, cover the wall, their red felt interiors setting off the gleaming white chiseled marble of 120 figures and vessels. The shelves are dominated by around 70 small, spirited female figurines or idols, averaging around 16 inches in height and in one rare piece reaching just over four feet. These are the glory of Cycladic art, distinguished by their stylized forms, folded arms and blank faces — except for little wedge-shaped noses — also by their understated sensuousness and reverberating stillness. They’re like tuning forks.

The vitrines also contain some relatively large stand-alone heads, without bodies, that resemble miniature versions of the giant heads of Easter Island. And there are numerous vessels: vases, bowls, plates and a few palettes, including two that are narrow, delicate and slightly curved and seem cut from a single leaf of leek. Five additional pieces occupy five individual vitrines nearby, and another 36 pieces can be seen in a vitrine in the Greek and Roman Study Collection on the mezzanine, overlooking the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court.

All 161 works were made in the Cyclades, a group of small islands in the Aegean Sea east of Greece between roughly 5300 B.C., or the late Neolithic period, and 2300 B.C., the beginning of the Bronze Age, a span of time also referred to as Early Cycladic I and II. The figures especially are among humanity’s greatest achievements, grave and cool yet instantly familiar and even essentially realistic, like skeletons. It seems like they might fold up, like draughtsman’s dummies.

They were collected starting in the early 1980s by Leonard N. Stern, chief executive of Hartz Mountain Industries, who as a teenager was enthralled by the Cycladic art at the Met. Stern has given his collection to Greece and in a deal worked out between him, the Met and the Greek government, most of them will remain on view at the museum for the next 25 years — with select works periodically returning to Greece — and a possible extension of the loan for 25 more years. The display has been curated by Sean Hemingway, head of the Met’s Greek and Roman Department, and Alexis Belis, one of its assistant curators.

Cycladic sculpture begins the great tradition of Greek sculpture that is seen as culminating in the Classical sculpture of the Greek Golden Age, centered on Athens, nearly two millenniums later. They are also an important origin of Western abstraction. Like African sculpture, they were colonial plunder, ensconced before the turn of the 20th century at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, where they influenced modern artists like Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani and Picasso.

The basics of the figurines’ postures and poses rarely change: Their arms fold across the middle of the torso, one above the other, just below austere indications of breasts. These arms usually end in four short, shallow incisions, fingers that look like paintbrushes or tassels, but indicate hands. The inverted triangles incised across the female figures’ lower abdomens resemble bikini bottoms. The curves usually come into play in the thigh and lower leg area.

The smooth, mask-like faces with their wedge noses sit atop long, tapering necks. Often their heads tilt back, gazing upward, meditatively if not worshipfully, toward the stars. In other instances, the faces look straight ahead, and convey more contemporary nuances. For example some might almost be caricatures of women in wet bathing suits at the beach, shivering a bit, trying to get their kids to come out of the water. I’m always surprised how some figures can bring to mind New Yorker cartoons.

The purposes of the Cycladic figures remain largely mysterious. They were made in a time before written language, and the great majority of them were dug up by people looking for something to sell. These searchers had little regard for the niceties of the archaeological discipline, such as when, where, with what and how deep (in the ground) the pieces were found. Some of them were discovered placed horizontally in graves and tombs, part of burial rituals. Others may have served as fertility idols or been used in private shrines. They might also have been toys, which speaks to their immense charm and accessibility. They remain among the most popular forms of ancient art.

Encountering Cycladic figurines for the first time can be a significant rite of passage for the art-oriented of today. The sight can teach you in an unforgettable instant that much of what we call modern is really nothing new. But part of Cycladic modernity is relatively recent: The figures were not originally bare white marble; most were painted — hence the palettes. Faint blushes and infinitesimal flakes of color can be found on some of the figures and there are prominent areas of pale orange and red brushstrokes on a few of the plates.

Seeing so many figurines in such proximity has its own kind of shock. We learn that this figurative formula accommodated an unusual range of proportions, emotions and body language, encouraging a kind of elemental connoisseurship. You can’t help but notice and compare.

In the top two shelves of the first vitrine you can almost see the style coming into focus. Two headless figures have blocky guitar or violin shaped bodies; another two have arms cocked at the hips, opening little spaces at the elbows and one of these has breasts that evoke closely placed bricks. A round bottomed figure suggests an inflatable bop bag toy with lovely curving arms and hands that seem folded into her armpits.

Sometimes the folded arms look like matchsticks, sometimes they are fleshier, even relaxed, almost naturalistic. The arms slip up and down the torso somewhat precariously, resembling cummerbunds in some pieces and dropped waistlines in others. The most extreme displacement of the arms is found in the last of the big redlined vitrines: a figure with no torso, so the crossed arms are just below the chin, as if our idol is carrying small logs for building a fire.

The Stern Collection of Cycladic Art turns the Belfer Court into one of the Met’s greatest galleries. The tradition that begins with the Cycladic sculptors is generally seen as reaching its apogee many centuries later when their Golden Age descendants finally arrived at an accurate if idealized treatment of the human form. I doubt I am alone in thinking that this idealized realism lacked something and that Greece’s sculptural tradition was never better than in the hands of its Cycladic forebears.

Cycladic Art: The Leonard N. Stern Collection on Loan From the Hellenic Republic

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; (212) 535-7710;

Roberta Smith , the co-chief art critic, regularly reviews museum exhibitions, art fairs and gallery shows in New York, North America and abroad. Her special areas of interest include ceramics textiles, folk and outsider art, design and video art. More about Roberta Smith

Art and Museums in New York City

A guide to the shows, exhibitions and artists shaping the city’s cultural landscape..

Chuck Close’s longtime gallerist, Arne Glimcher, has organized an exhibition of Close’s final portraits at Pace Gallery in Chelsea. Will it help restore his reputation ?

Sixty years after the Beatles appeared live on “Ed Sullivan,” Paul McCartney reflects on his photos capturing those halcyon days . The Brooklyn Museum will exhibit them, and some will be for sale later.

At the Swiss Institute, Raven Chacon, a Pulitzer-Prize winner, makes art warmed — socially and spiritually — by hope .

A Brooklyn Museum exhibit titled “Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys” showcases art work collected by musical superstars — and makes a show of the collectors, too .

New York City has added another jewel to its glittering cultural crown, a major collection of early Greek figures and vessels , and it takes up little more than one medium-size wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Looking for more art in the city? Here are the gallery shows not to miss in February .

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  • 05 February 2024

First passages of rolled-up Herculaneum scroll revealed

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Three rows of yellow papyrus with black writing in columns, on a black background.

Text from the Herculaneum scroll, which has been unseen for 2,000 years. Credit: Vesuvius Challenge

A team of student researchers has made a giant contribution to solving one of the biggest mysteries in archaeology by revealing the content of Greek writing inside a charred scroll buried 2,000 years ago by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The winners of a contest called the Vesuvius Challenge trained their machine-learning algorithms on scans of the rolled-up papyrus, unveiling a previously unknown philosophical work that discusses the senses and pleasure. The feat paves the way for artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to decipher the rest of the scrolls in their entirety, something that researchers say could have revolutionary implications for our understanding of the ancient world.

paragraph on greek art

AI reads text from ancient Herculaneum scroll for the first time

The achievement has ignited the usually slow-moving world of ancient studies. It’s “what I always thought was a pipe dream coming true”, says Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. The revealed text discusses sources of pleasure including music, the taste of capers and the colour purple. “It’s an historic moment,” says classicist Bob Fowler at the University of Bristol, UK, one of the prize judges. The three students, from Egypt, Switzerland and the United States, who revealed the text share a US$700,000 grand prize.

The scroll is one of hundreds of intact papyri excavated in the eighteenth century from a luxury Roman villa in Herculaneum, Italy. These lumps of carbonized ash — known as the Herculaneum scrolls — constitute the only library that survives from the ancient world, but are too fragile to open.

The winning entry, announced on 5 February, reveals hundreds of words across 15 columns of text, corresponding to around 5% of a scroll. “The contest has cleared the air on all the people saying will this even work,” says Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, and co-founder of the prize. “Nobody doubts that anymore.”

Twenty-year mission

In the centuries after the scrolls were discovered, many people have attempted to open them, destroying some and leaving others in pieces. Papyrologists are still working to decipher and stitch together the resulting, horribly fragmented, texts. But the chunks with the worst charring — the most hopeless cases, adding up to perhaps 280 entire scrolls — were left intact. Most are held in the National Library in Naples, Italy, with a few in Paris, London and Oxford, UK.

A carbonized scroll rests on weighing scales.

This Herculaneum scroll was burnt and buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Credit: Vesuvius Challenge

Seales has been trying to read these concealed texts for nearly 20 years. His team developed software to “virtually unwrap” the surfaces of rolled-up papyri using 3D computed tomography (CT) images. In 2019, he took two of the scrolls from the Institut de France in Paris to the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford to make high-resolution scans.

Mapping the surfaces was time consuming, however, and the carbon-based ink used to write the scrolls has the same density as papyrus, so it was impossible to differentiate in CT scans. Seales and his colleagues wondered whether machine-learning models might be trained to ‘unwrap’ the scrolls and distinguish the ink. But making sense of all the data was a gigantic task for his small team.

Seales was approached by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Nat Friedman, who had become intrigued by the Herculaneum scrolls after watching a talk by Seales online. Friedman suggested opening the challenge to contestants. He donated $125,000 to launch the effort and raised hundreds of thousands more on Twitter, and Seales released his software along with the high-resolution scans. The team launched the Vesuvius Challenge in March 2023, setting a grand prize for reading 4 passages, of at least 140 characters each, before the end of the year.

Key to the contest’s success was its “blend of competition and cooperation”, says Friedman. Smaller prizes were awarded along the way to incentivize progress, with the winning machine-learning code released at each stage to “level up” the community so contestants could build on each other’s advances.

The colour purple

A key innovation came in the middle of last year, when US entrepreneur and former physicist Casey Handmer noticed a faint texture in the scans, similar to cracked mud — he called it “crackle” — that seemed to form the shapes of Greek letters. Luke Farritor, an undergraduate studying computer science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, used the crackle to train a machine-learning algorithm, revealing the word porphyras , ‘purple’, which won him the prize for unveiling the first letters in October . An Egyptian computer-science PhD student at the Free University of Berlin, Youssef Nader, followed with even clearer images of the text and came second.

A team of researchers used machine learning to image the shapes of ink on the rolled-up scroll. Credit: Vesuvius Challenge

Their code was released with less than three months for contestants to scale up their reads before the 31 December deadline for the final prize. “We were biting our nails,” says Friedman. But in the final week, the competition received 18 submissions. A technical jury checked entrants’ code, then passed 12 submissions to a committee of papyrologists who transcribed the text and assessed each entry for legibility. Only one fully met the prize criteria: a team formed by Farritor and Nader, along with Julian Schilliger, a robotics student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

The results are “incredible”, says judge Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II. “We were all completely amazed by the images they were showing.” She and her colleagues are now racing to analyse the text that has been revealed.

Music, pleasure and capers

The content of most of the previously opened Herculaneum scrolls relates to the Epicurean school of philosophy, founded by the Athenian philosopher Epicurus, who lived from 341 to 270 bc . The scrolls seem to have formed the working library of a follower of Epicurus named Philodemus. The new text doesn’t name the author but from a rough first read, say Fowler and Nicolardi, it is probably also by Philodemus. As well as pleasurable tastes and sights, it refers to a figure called Xenophantus, possibly a flute-player of that name mentioned by the ancient authors Seneca and Plutarch, whose evocative playing apparently caused Alexander the Great to reach for his weapons.

Lapatin says the topics discussed by Philodemus and Epicurus are still relevant: “The basic questions Epicurus was asking are the ones that face us all as humans. How do we live a good life? How do we avoid pain?” But “the real gains are still ahead of us”, he says. “What’s so exciting to me is less what this scroll says, but that the decipherment of this scroll bodes well for the decipherment of the hundreds of scrolls that we had previously given up on.”

There is likely to be more Greek philosophy in the scrolls: “I’d love it if he had some works by Aristotle,” says papyrologist and prize judge Richard Janko at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, some of the opened scrolls, written in Latin, cover a broader subject area, raising the possibility of lost poetry and literature by writers from Homer to Sappho. The scrolls “will yield who knows what kinds of new secrets”, says Fowler. “We’re all very excited.”

The achievement is also likely to fuel debate over whether further investigations should be conducted at the Herculaneum villa, entire levels of which have never been excavated. Janko and Fowler are convinced that the villa’s main library was never found, and that thousands more scrolls could still be underground. More broadly, the machine-learning techniques pioneered by Seales and the Vesuvius Challenge contestants could now be used to study other types of hidden text, such as cartonnage, recycled papyri often used to wrap Egyptian mummies.

The next step is to decipher an entire work. Friedman has announced a new set of Vesuvius Challenge prizes for 2024, with the aim of reading 90% of a scroll by the end of the year. But in the meantime, just getting this far “feels like a miracle”, he says. “I can’t believe it worked.”

Nature 626 , 461-462 (2024)


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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Music in ancient greece.

Marble seated harp player

Marble seated harp player

Terracotta column-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)

Terracotta column-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)

Attributed to Lydos

Terracotta neck-amphora (jar) with lid and knob (27.16)

Terracotta neck-amphora (jar) with lid and knob (27.16)

Attributed to Exekias

Terracotta amphora (jar)

Terracotta amphora (jar)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter

Terracotta kylix (drinking cup)

Terracotta kylix (drinking cup)

Attributed to the Dokimasia Painter

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)

Attributed to the Brygos Painter

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)

Attributed to the Nikon Painter

Terracotta bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)

Terracotta bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)

Attributed to the Danaë Painter

Terracotta stamnos (jar)

Terracotta stamnos (jar)

Attributed to the Menelaos Painter

Terracotta bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)

Attributed to the Painter of London E 497

Set of jewelry

Set of jewelry

Colette Hemingway Independent Scholar

Seán Hemingway Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001

Music was essential to the pattern and texture of Greek life, as it was an important feature of religious festivals , marriage and funeral rites, and banquet gatherings . Our knowledge of ancient Greek music comes from actual fragments of musical scores, literary references, and the remains of musical instruments. Although extant musical scores are rare, incomplete, and of relatively late date, abundant literary references shed light on the practice of music, its social functions, and its perceived aesthetic qualities. Likewise, inscriptions provide information about the economics and institutional organization of professional musicians, recording such things as prizes awarded and fees paid for services. The archaeological record attests to monuments erected in honor of accomplished musicians and to splendid roofed concert halls. In Athens during the second half of the fifth century B.C. , the Odeion (roofed concert hall) of Perikles was erected on the south slope of the Athenian akropolis—physical testimony to the importance of music in Athenian culture.

In addition to the physical remains of musical instruments in a number of archaeological contexts, depictions of musicians and musical events in vase painting and sculpture provide valuable information about the kinds of instruments that were preferred and how they were actually played. Although the ancient Greeks were familiar with many kinds of instruments, three in particular were favored for composition and performance: the kithara, a plucked string instrument; the lyre, also a string instrument; and the aulos, a double-reed instrument. Most Greek men trained to play an instrument competently, and to sing and perform choral dances. Instrumental music or the singing of a hymn regularly accompanied everyday activities and formal acts of worship. Shepherds piped to their flocks, oarsmen and infantry kept time to music, and women made music at home. The art of singing to one’s own stringed accompaniment was highly developed. Greek philosophers saw a relationship between music and mathematics, envisioning music as a paradigm of harmonious order reflecting the cosmos and the human soul.

Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. “Music in Ancient Greece.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001)

Further Reading

Anderson, Warren D. Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece . Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Bundrick, Sheramy D. Music and Image in Classical Athens . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Norris, Michael. Greek Art from Prehistoric to Classical: A Resource for Educators . New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. See on MetPublications

Additional Essays by Seán Hemingway

  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition .” (April 2007)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Greek Hydriai (Water Jars) and Their Artistic Decoration .” (July 2007)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Hellenistic Jewelry .” (April 2007)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Intellectual Pursuits of the Hellenistic Age .” (April 2007)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Mycenaean Civilization .” (October 2003)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Africans in Ancient Greek Art .” (January 2008)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Ancient Greek Colonization and Trade and their Influence on Greek Art .” (July 2007)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Greek Gods and Religious Practices .” (October 2003)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ The Art of Classical Greece (ca. 480–323 B.C.) .” (January 2008)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Athletics in Ancient Greece .” (October 2002)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ The Rise of Macedon and the Conquests of Alexander the Great .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ The Technique of Bronze Statuary in Ancient Greece .” (October 2003)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Cyprus—Island of Copper .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Etruscan Art .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Prehistoric Cypriot Art and Culture .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Seán. “ Minoan Crete .” (October 2002)

Additional Essays by Colette Hemingway

  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition .” (April 2007)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Greek Hydriai (Water Jars) and Their Artistic Decoration .” (July 2007)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Hellenistic Jewelry .” (April 2007)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Intellectual Pursuits of the Hellenistic Age .” (April 2007)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Mycenaean Civilization .” (October 2003)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Retrospective Styles in Greek and Roman Sculpture .” (July 2007)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Africans in Ancient Greek Art .” (January 2008)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Ancient Greek Colonization and Trade and their Influence on Greek Art .” (July 2007)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Architecture in Ancient Greece .” (October 2003)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Greek Gods and Religious Practices .” (October 2003)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ The Art of Classical Greece (ca. 480–323 B.C.) .” (January 2008)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ The Labors of Herakles .” (January 2008)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Athletics in Ancient Greece .” (October 2002)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ The Rise of Macedon and the Conquests of Alexander the Great .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ The Technique of Bronze Statuary in Ancient Greece .” (October 2003)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Women in Classical Greece .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Cyprus—Island of Copper .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) and Art .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Etruscan Art .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Prehistoric Cypriot Art and Culture .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Sardis .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Medicine in Classical Antiquity .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Southern Italian Vase Painting .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Theater in Ancient Greece .” (October 2004)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ The Kithara in Ancient Greece .” (October 2002)
  • Hemingway, Colette. “ Minoan Crete .” (October 2002)

Related Essays

  • Greek Gods and Religious Practices
  • The Roman Banquet
  • The Symposium in Ancient Greece
  • Architecture in Ancient Greece
  • The Art of Classical Greece (ca. 480–323 B.C.)
  • Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques
  • Early Cycladic Art and Culture
  • Funerary Vases in Southern Italy and Sicily
  • Greek Art in the Archaic Period
  • The Kithara in Ancient Greece
  • Music in the Renaissance
  • Mystery Cults in the Greek and Roman World
  • The Piano: Viennese Instruments
  • Poets, Lovers, and Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints
  • Renaissance Organs
  • The Rise of Macedon and the Conquests of Alexander the Great
  • Scenes of Everyday Life in Ancient Greece
  • Theseus, Hero of Athens
  • Women in Classical Greece
  • Ancient Greece, 1000 B.C.–1 A.D.
  • Southern Europe, 8000–2000 B.C.
  • Ancient Greek Art
  • Balkan Peninsula
  • Black-Figure Pottery
  • Classical Period
  • Floral Motif
  • Funerary Art
  • Musical Instrument
  • Painted Object
  • Percussion Instrument
  • Red-Figure Pottery
  • Religious Art
  • String Instrument
  • Wind Instrument

Artist or Maker

  • Berlin Painter
  • Brygos Painter
  • Danae Painter
  • Dokimasia Painter
  • Menelaos Painter
  • Nikon Painter
  • Painter of London E 497


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    341 Words 2 Pages Decent Essays Preview Greek Art Power Introduction The capacity of a society to produce art is, in effect, an exercise of its power. It is through the presence of affluence that a nation is capable of focusing not solely upon survival, but the development and proliferation of culture, of which art is a central element.

  19. The Art of Classical Greece (ca. 480-323 B.C.)

    Praxiteles' creation broke one of the most tenacious conventions in Greek art in which the female figure had previously been shown draped. Its slender proportions and distinctive contrapposto stance became hallmarks of fourth-century B.C. Greek sculpture. In architecture, the Corinthian—characterized by ornate, vegetal column capitals ...

  20. Geometric Art in Ancient Greece

    Greek Art and Archaeology. 2d ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Schweitzer, Bernhard. Greek Geometric Art. New York: Phaidon, 1971. Additional Essays by Department of Greek and Roman Art. Department of Greek and Roman Art. "Classical Cyprus (ca. 480-ca. 310 B.C.)." (July 2007) Department of Greek and Roman Art.

  21. Old-Time Modernity: Cycladic Art at the Met

    All 161 works were made in the Cyclades, a group of small islands in the Aegean Sea east of Greece between roughly 5300 B.C., or the late Neolithic period, and 2300 B.C., the beginning of the ...

  22. 11,000-Year-Old Greek Cave Art Found on Crete

    The long extinct dwarf deer was depicted in the cave drawings. Public Domain The earliest Greek cave art depicting extinct animals was discovered on Crete and is believed to be at least 11,000 years old. Dating back to the last Ice Age, the artwork was found in Asphendou Cave located near the ...

  23. First passages of rolled-up Herculaneum scroll revealed

    Researchers used artificial intelligence to decipher the text of 2,000-year-old charred papyrus scripts, unveiling musings on music and capers.

  24. Ancient Rock Art Transmitted Information Across 100 Generations

    Ancient rock art in an Argentinian cave. Credit: G.R.V. / Science Advances / CC BY 4.0 New research published in the journal Science Advances unveils surprising findings about ancient rock art in Argentina. Previously estimated to be just a few thousand years old, this collection of drawings found in a Patagonian cave is much older than believed.

  25. Greek Gods and Religious Practices

    A History of Greek Art. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Additional Essays by Seán Hemingway. Hemingway, Seán. "Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition." (April 2007) Hemingway, Seán.

  26. Putin's Fiercest Critic Alexei Navalny Dies in Siberia Prison

    Putin's opponents fall mysteriously ill. In 2020 Navalny was stricken after drinking a cup of tea and was in a coma in the Russian city of Omsk.. The Russian opposition leader who was otherwise in good health, began to feel ill as he returned to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk and had to be carried off the airplane on a stretcher after it made an emergency landing in Omsk.

  27. Theseus, Hero of Athens

    In the ancient Greek world, myth functioned as a method of both recording history and providing precedent for political programs. While today the word "myth" is almost synonymous with "fiction," in antiquity, myth was an alternate form of reality.Thus, the rise of Theseus as the national hero of Athens, evident in the evolution of his iconography in Athenian art, was a result of a ...

  28. Music in Ancient Greece

    Colette Hemingway Independent Scholar Seán Hemingway Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art October 2001 Music was essential to the pattern and texture of Greek life, as it was an important feature of religious festivals, marriage and funeral rites, and banquet gatherings.