Greek art as we know it started around 650 BCE and lasted to around 27 BCE. This period of ancient Greek art is rich with cultural and socio-economic history, shaping its very essence and informing it as much as it informs us. It would take a significant amount of time to learn all there is to know about ancient Greek art, which predominantly constitutes of pottery, architecture, and sculpture.
Table of Contents
- 1 A Little Bit About Hellas
- 2 Historical Foundations: What Are the Origins of Ancient Greece?
- 3 The Greek Dark Ages and the Start of Greek Civilization
- 4 Greek Art and Architecture Characteristics
- 5 To Rome and Beyond
- 6 Frequently Asked Questions
A Little Bit About Hellas
Before we start with Ancient Greek art, let us explore the magnitude with which we are engaging, namely, Greece. When we think of Greece, or Hellas, which is its Ancient Greek translation, we immediately know more-or-less the impact this ancient civilization had on shaping our Western civilization.
Greece is a bustling geographic hotspot on the world map – its location is in Southeast Europe with its capital being Athens. 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 (this is towards the West), and the Cretan and Mediterranean Seas (this is towards the South). There are also numerous islands surrounding Greece.
Map of Ancient Greece by Matthäus Seutter, 1740; Matthäus Seutter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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 place where the gods would reside with Zeus on the throne.
Greece is also widely considered as the “cradle” or “birthplace” of Western civilization. It was the starting point of various cultural and political doctrines, for example, 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 BC, and then into the Bronze Age, which started around 3,200 BC.
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 BC-3200BC), 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.
Romantic reconstruction drawing of the “Queen’s Megaron” by Emile Gilliéron the younger. From the papers of Arthur Evans relating to excavations in Crete, between 1922 and 1926; Gilliron, Ðmile fils, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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 (circa 3300-2000BC) from the Cyclades, the Minoan civilization (circa 2700-1100 BC), which was from Crete, and the Mycenaean civilization (circa 3200-1050), which was from Mainland Greece. The development of each civilization overlapped with the other, although the Mycenaean civilization eventually absorbed the Minoans.
Some of the notable features of these periods include writing, known as Linear A and Linear B, more trade, and 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. Their civilization was advanced in many ways, from not only writing and more extensive trade (traveling to places like Egypt exposed them to different cultures), but their art and architecture consisted of ancient Greek paintings like frescoes, which were brightly painted of subject matter like animals from the land and sea, and landscapes of nature. These were often painted inside the palaces. The frescoes would also have borders in decorative patterns.
Toreador Fresco (Bull-Leaping Fresco) (c. 1600-1450 BC), found in Knossos palace, Crete, Greece. Part of a five-panel composition, the iconic Toreador Fresco depicts an acrobat at the back of a charging bull. A second figure prepares to leap, while a third waits with arms outstretched; Heraklion Archaeological Museum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Beyond ancient Greek paintings, 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 their 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 four stories. Palaces were significant features in the Minoan civilization, and alongside their extensive layouts, various farming communities surrounded a central palace, and roads were made to connect the farms or villages.
The Mycenaean civilization was located mainly in Mycenae, and other areas like Athens, Thebes, Pylos, Sparta, among others. It is also referred to as the “Helladic” period. Since the Mycenaeans lived on Mainland Greece, they are also described as “indigenous”.
Trading was common among this civilization, namely in goods like 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 when compared to the Minoans. The Trojan War is a famous war and is popularized to this day through films like Troy. When we look at frescoes created, the Mycenaeans also depicted a variety of scenes relating to battle, animals, nature, warriors marching with their weapons, and various other subject matter similar to that of the Minoans.
In fact, 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, there would have been trade between Crete (Minoans) and Mycenae, which explains the styles of art converging between the two cultures.
The well-known Lion Gate (c. 1250 BC) 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, with a column in the center between the two animals. The Lion Gate is located as the main entryway to the acropolis, which is where the palace and citadel were situated.
Relief of the Lion Gate (c. 1250 BC), Mycenae; Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Greek Dark Ages and the Start of Greek Civilization
The Mycenaean civilization ended around 1100 BC. The fall of this civilization and many others around that period is a widely debated topic. Many sources point to invasions by the Dorian civilization, climate changes, natural disasters like earthquakes, and other social issues like famine and overpopulation.
This period is referred to as the “Late Bronze Age Collapse”, which would eventually become what is known as the “Greek Dark Ages”. This period started around 1100 BC to around 750 BC. It was also referred to as the “Homeric” period, which related to Homer’s poems the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Almost congruent with the above-mentioned periods, the Geometric period (900-700 BC) 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 develop and evolve.
After this, there was an increase in population and ancient Greek art really took 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 as a supermodel. There were three distinguishing periods in Greek art that characterized its development. Below, we look at these three periods along with various characteristics and notable artists within each.
Epiphany of Dionysus mosaic, from the Villa of Dionysus (2nd century AD) in Dion, Greece. Now in the Archeological Museum of Dion; Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Archaic Period (c. 650 – 480 BCE)
The Archaic Period occurred with the onset of the Greek Olympic Games in 776 BC, which is often noted as when this period truly started. Politically and socially, this period also saw the start of the city-state, referred to as polis, which means “city” in Greek. These poleis were mainly ruled under tyranny, although there is also debate that this tyrannical rule was not the same as what it became in later years. Tyrants essentially assisted communities to become more expansive in wealth and work 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. More animals like lions, griffins, and sphinxes were painted and artists employed decorative motifs like curves and floral patterns.
The human form was also depicted not only in painting on pottery but also in sculpture. This is evident in the various life-sized figure sculptures created from stone. While there was realism in their portrayal, there was also an idealism largely influenced by the Mycenaeans and the show of strength and physical prowess of the masculine form.
This was largely displayed in the athletes and warriors of the time, marking the Mycenaean culture as a “Golden Age” because of the bravery and heroism.
The human form in sculpture during the Archaic Period is seen in well-known examples referred to as kouros (“young boy”) and kore (“young girl”). These statues were 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.
Statue of a kore (left) and a kouros (right), both made from Parian marble. Found in Merenda (ancient Myrrhinous), Attica. Both are important works of the ripe Archaic style and its period; George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The female counterpart, the kore, was often depicted wearing dresses of their time with some 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. This is a notable characteristic as it symbolizes idealism.
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; some also believe they were of the god Apollo and made to resemble Greek deities.
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 BC), who created The Tyrranicides (510 BCE).
Statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, part of the Tyrranicides group; Elliott Brown, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Tyrranicides was commissioned by Cleisthenes, a political leader who set the foundations for democracy in Athens during the 6th Century BC. 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”.
Kritios sculpted all the anatomical accuracies inherent in a posture like this one. We see how the left hip is elevated and the buttocks on the right is not tensed. Other features of this work show the dropped left shoulder, the rib cage appearing as if the figure is inhaling due to its expansion, and the facial expression, which is not as idealized as we see in previous Early Archaic sculptures.
Kritios is described as producing work that is more “severe” in style. This is exemplified in the figure’s mouth; it is not the “archaic smile” we so often see from the idealized expressions of before, but appears more serious in expression.
This work is now housed and displayed 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 BC.
Kritios Boy (c. 480 BC) by Kritios; Critius, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
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, where 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). This ushered in new ways of thinking, making reason and knowledge an important determining factor that underpinned many beliefs and perspectives.
Plato’s Academy mosaic (from Pompeii, c. first century), now at the Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Naples; Naples National Archaeological Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Classical Greek Sculpture
Art became a representation of the natural. In other words, it became true to nature and true to real-life proportions. Greek artists began to create sculptures that appeared human-like and detailed, but still beautiful and perfected. This brings us to what was known as the “Canon of Proportions”.
This term refers to the perfect artwork, or so according to Greek sculptor Polykleitos. He developed what was termed “The Canon” (circa 450 BCE), a set of ratios based on mathematical measurements of the human body to depict each body part in perfect order and symmetry – in other words, perfect proportion.
An example of this is in his sculpture Doryphoros (‘Spear Bearer’, c. 440 BCE), 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.
Doryphoros (‘Spear Bearer’, c. 440 BCE) by Polykleitos; Minneapolis Institute of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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 in many other well-known Greek sculptors of the Classical period, such as Myron’s classic Discobolus (‘Discus Thrower’, c. 425 BCE).
The Discobolus was originally in bronze but recreated by various Roman sculptors over time in bronze and marble. It is a male discus thrower portrayed fully 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 that direction – 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.
The Discobolus Lancellotti, Roman copy of a 5th century BC Greek original by Myron, Hadrianic period, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme; Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Praxiteles was another prominent sculptor of the 4th Century BC, famous for his life-sized female nude sculptures, of which he was a pioneer. One of his popular sculptures includes Aphrodite of Cnidus (c. 4th Century BC), depicting the nude female holding a bath towel in her left hand (or reaching for one) while covering her genitalia with her right hand, with her breasts uncovered.
A sculpture such as this was revolutionary at the time because all sculptures were typically done 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.
Aphrodite of Knidos (c. 4th century BC) by Praxiteles; José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Classical Greek Architecture
The grandeur of Classical Greek architecture is illustrated by 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 in dedication 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 forty feet in height and made of ivory and gold (the goddess’ skin was sculpted in ivory and her clothes were made from gold fabric).
Parthenon by Vasiliy Polenov (1881-1882); Vasily Polenov, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Parthenon had multitudes of 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 are 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 subsequent 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 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, often described as being more slender in appearance than the robust Doric style. The Ionic column also includes a base to support it.
A photograph of the Parthenon from the west; User:Mountain, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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 Alexander’s death 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 BC, and in 27 BCE, Emperor Augustus took over Greece and it became part of the Roman Empire.
The Romans were greatly inspired by Greek art and architecture, and we will notice numerous replicas in marble done from Greek-inspired art.
During the Hellenistic Period, Greek art became more diverse with a wider range of subject matter, including not only young or warrior-like males but everyday folk, including animals. Greek artists also moved away from depicting the ideal, as there was a heightened naturalism – almost to the point of being dramatic – in 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 in expression 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 and going beyond its physicality. There is 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 during this period, such as Colossus of Rhodes (c. 220 BCE) by Chares of Lindos, which was around 110 feet in height. This magnificent statue was a male figure often described as being a dedication to Helios, the sun god. Unfortunately, this statue was destroyed during an earthquake.
Colossus of Rhodes (c. 220 BC); Unknown author Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Another sculpture is The Dying Gaul (c. 230-220 BCE) by Epigonus. This depicts a typical example of the expressive nature of Hellenistic sculptures. The figure is of a Gaul, as is evident from his haircut and the ring around his neck, otherwise referred to as a “torque”. He is in the process of dying, which is shown in his posture as well as the broken sword lying next to him. What makes this sculpture so unique is that it captures a moment of death, inevitably evoking emotions in the viewer, which is what would have occurred for so many Greeks viewing this piece.
The Dying Gaul (c. 230-220 BC) by Epigonus; Capitoline Museums, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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, because the statue was found on the volcanic island of Milos (located in the Aegean Sea) in 1820.
We will notice the familiar contrapposto (“S-Curve”) posture in this sculpture, which is made evident by the draping of her robe around her lower torso and her left leg being slightly elevated. There is also a hint of sensuality with her exposed upper torso and the robe that is just about to slide off her legs. There appears to be a dramatic element to how she is posed, agai evoking attention from onlookers.
Venus de Milo (130-100 BCE) by Alexandros of Antioch, in the Musée de Louvre; Edwin Lee, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
We will also notice this heightened sense of dramatism in one of the most famous sculptures today from the Hellenistic Period, Laocoön and His Sons (27 BCE-68 CE) by several sculptors from Rhodes, namely, Agesandro, Athendoros, and Polydoros. This piece was excavated in 1506 in a vineyard in Rome with Michelangelo supervising the process.
In fact, 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 matter is of Laocoön, in the center, with his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus in a desperate struggle to get the biting sea serpents off them, seemingly to no avail. 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 story comes from the Trojan War, where Laocoön (who was a priest) is said to have given a warning to the Trojans about the wooden horse and their plans. He was attacked by serpents as a result, in an effort to keep him quiet.
Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble copy after a Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506; Vatican Museums, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hellenistic Greek Architecture
In Hellenistic Architecture, the Corinthian Order became widely used on buildings. This was a more elaborate style that added a decorative effect to buildings. Furthermore, architecture took on the role to accommodate more people for entertainment purposes. An example of this new development includes the Pergamon Acropolis.
Designed as a cultural hub, so to say, this acropolis had theaters (such as the Pergamon Theater, with a capacity for 10 thousand attendees), baths, libraries, gymnasiums, and religious buildings like 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 is over 30 meters in width. It is in the shape of an upside-down “U”, with steps comprising most of its width in the center. Throughout the superstructure are numerous columns in the Ionic Order style. Along the base of the superstructure is the Gigantomachy frieze, which depicts the mythological story about the battle between the Greek Olympian gods and the Giants.
Altar of Zeus in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin; Lestat (Jan Mehlich), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The frieze measure over 100 meters in length and is sculpted in the 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 developed at a later stage than other dynasties during this time, and this cultural hub is a testament to their part in the Greek inheritances.
A section of the Gigantomachy frieze of the Pergamon Altar at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany; BrokenSphere, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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 started around 509 BCE, when the last king (of which there were seven), Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown by his nephew Lucius Junius Brutus, who is known as one of the first founders of the Roman Republic. After the establishment of the Roman Republic, it eventually developed into an empire in around 27 BC, 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 and hands of Renaissance painters and sculptors.
Even to this day, we are still touched by the beauty and symmetry left behind in ratios and rations of ancient Greek artifacts. While most of the Greek art has since been lost or destroyed, it is remembered and immortalized by those who remembered them long ago. Thus, Ancient Greek art has become almost like a mirror of a mirror onto the past.
Take a look at our Ancient Greece art webstory here!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Were the Stages of Greek Art?
Greek art has a long history, dating back to pre-historic 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).
What Does “Classical Order” Mean?
The Classical Order is used to describe the type of column style in Greek architecture. There were three dominant orders, namely, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The Doric Order style was simple in its style while the Ionic and Corinthian Orders became more decorative, elaborate in design, and slender in appearance than the shorter Doric Order.
What Are Some Greek Art Characteristics?
Greek art was characterized by its depiction of beauty in an idealized manner. Figures in sculpture especially became more naturalistic in their portrayal related to proportion and balance. The famous contrapposto technique became widely incorporated, adding a new element of dynamism to the figure portrayed. Greek art depicted the belief in mathematical congruency with beauty.