Greek and Roman civilization is the ancestor of the modern Western world, and so it is along the shores of the Mediterranean and the many-creeked coasts of the peninsulas of Greece and Asia Minor that we begin in earnest our study of art and history as a path to finding life’s meaning.
Greece in the ancient world was not a single political entity but rather a collection of some 1,500 separate poleis or ‘cities’ scattered around the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores ‘like frogs around a pond’ as Plato charmingly stated it.
Cities and shrines like Athens, Sparta, Delphi and Olympia exerted cultural, military and political influences far and wide. Between 750 and 300 BC, Greeks founded hundreds of settlements abroad including in Southern Italy, Sicily, and North Africa. In the fifth century BC, wars with the Persians and within Greece halted much of Greek expansion until Alexander the Great came along (336 – 323 BC) and brought Macedonian rule to Egypt and vast areas of the Near East, strengthening and extending Greek influence further, and ushering in the Hellenistic era.
Currently, I am in Oxford, England for the summer and blocks away from the Ashmolean Museum, which houses an amazing assortment of pottery, jewelry, sculptures, reliefs and funerary pieces from the ancient world. I spent a recent afternoon exploring the many artifacts in the Greek and Roman civilization exhibits. I wish I could show you all of it!
As we learned in school, the Greeks had many gods with different roles to play. The gods, of which there are 14 principles, were worshiped in various ways. The Greeks believes the gods were intimately involved in their daily lives, which was not always pleasant, as the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it:
“The Greek gods are…not brave, not self-controlled, they have no manners, they are not gentlemen and ladies.”
The gods in Greek and Roman thinking were much like men and women, yet larger than life, but with the same emotions – jealousies, tantrums, vengeance, love – as humans. Much of art, both in sculpture and in architecture (with large temples) was dedicated to the gods between 800-400 BC.
With the building of the Parthenon in Athens, we enter the first real ‘renaissance’ in culture and art as Greeks began to question old traditions and legends about the gods, and to inquire about life itself without prejudice from past traditions. Of all the Greek city-states, Athens in Attica became by far the most famous and the most important in the history of art.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this revolution began, but for our purposes, let’s make it after Athens had defeated the Persian invasion and the people, under the leader Pericles, began to build again what the Persians had destroyed (Great Awakening: 500-320 BC).
The Greek artists began using natural forms and foreshortening with a greater ease of convincing representation.
The famous Discobolus statue, originally in bronze by the Greek sculptor Myron, is an example of the “body beautiful” principle that was adapted in that age.
Every Greek work from that period shows how artists were enjoying their new-found freedom of representing the human body in movement and position to reflect the “inner life” of the figures created.
Socrates, the great philosopher who was also trained as a sculptor, urged artists to explore the “workings of the soul” by studying the way “feelings affect the body in action.”
Can you see how this differentiated the Greek artists from their predecessors of Egyptian glory? The flat figures of Egyptian tomb art were replaced by an emphasis on the natural form, albeit with a heavy dose of idealism. Also in contrast to the Egyptians, Greek artists focused on life rather than death.
However, as the tombstone below indicates, thoughts of the afterlife were very much on the minds of people who lived in the early age of Greek and Roman Civilization. The inscription states a belief in life after death.