Beginnings of Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture
Mycenaean Influences 1600-1100 BCE
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 7th century BCE. During the late Archaic period, individual sculptors, including Antenor, Kritios, and Nesiotes, were celebrated, and their names preserved for posterity.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 3rd 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 2nd century BCE resulted in geographically expansive empire.
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
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 (1st 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
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 (6th 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.
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.
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
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 3rd 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.
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 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
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 (4th 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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 1st century BCE and the 3rd 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 18th 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.
Do Not Miss
- Looking back to the arts of Greece and Rome for ideal models and forms, Neoclassicism was a major art period that set standard and redefined painting, sculpture, and architecture.
- Early in the 15th century, Florentine artists rejuvenated the arts with a more humanistic and individualistic treatment that spawned on of the most creative revolutions in the arts.
- Europe experienced a harsh interwar period after the chaos and aftermath of World War I, and with the onset of the Great Depression. Meanwhile artists focused on the so-called "return to order" (rappel a l'ordre), a renewal of depictions of Greek and Roman topics and imagery.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
First published on 11 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly