It’s been said that Greek history began not with a king or by winning a battle, but peacefully, with a poem. Homer‘s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in the 8th Century B.C.E. are what typically define the origin of Greek cultural antiquity.
A Thousand Years of Philosophy and Art
At the height of Greek philosophy and art, a sculptor by the name of Praxiteles created the statue above (the one above is probably a copy of the original, likely bronze sculpture), among other works well noted, but lost to us. Praxiteles was able to extinguish any trace of rigidity that typified earlier Greek works. Hermes stands in a relaxed pose, his muscles and bones accurately depicted under smooth skin. What Praxiteles and other Greek artists achieved in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. was idealized human form more symmetrical, well-built and beautiful than any real person could ever become.
In the same era, Plato was writing “The Apology of Socrates” (about his teacher and mentor) and “The Republic,” while his student, Aristotle, was immersed in “Physics” and “Metaphysics,” and espousing his ideas “On the Soul.”
These great writings revolutionized Western thought and are still today the blueprint for politics and philosophy as we know it.
Ancient Greek Philosophy and Art Depicted in a Renaissance Painting
Nearly 2,000 years later, between 1509 and 1510, an Italian artist by the name of Raphael painted a fresco on a Vatican wall that has come to represent the great philosophy and art of ancient Greece as it has come down to us through the ages.
The “School of Athens,” is actually one of four main frescoes on the walls of the Stanza that Raphael was commissioned to paint depicting branches of knowledge. The original title is “Philosophy” and so it is appropriate that Plato and Aristotle take center stage as they discuss the root of knowledge. Plato, on the left, points up, acknowledging a transcendent or theoretical root to ethics in the cosmos, while Aristotle’s hand, thrust downward, emphasizes the particulars of worldly, practical knowledge.
This is significant because philosophers, scientists, theologians and the rest of us are still debating the origin of knowledge to this day, and our conclusion to that ancient question defines our worldview.
Plato did have an academy in Athens and Aristotle studied there for 20 years before founding his own school called the Lyceum. Aristotle in turn, tutored Alexander the Great from 356 until he died in 323.
Between Alexander’s death and the emergence of
the Roman Empire is the period of time known as Hellenistic. At this time, Greek cultural influence and power was at it’s peak in Europe, Africa and Asia.
Luckily for all of us, the Ptolemy dynasty that Alexander the Great put on the throne in Egypt, established a library in Alexandria to preserve the ancient texts, especially those of mathematics, geography and advances in science.
By the time Egypt fell to the Romans in 30 B.C.E. the Middle East was a Greek speaking region, which is why when the first acts of a man named Jesus of Nazareth were written down decades later, they were written in Greek.
For only rare bits of time did ancient Greeks enjoy peace. Battles between the Greek city-states, and against the Persians, and then against their allies Sparta that led to the defeat of Athens in 404 B.C.E. left Greeks war-weary and demoralized. Their ancient gods and magnificent art and culture could not save them from eventual collapse. Yet, their contributions to mankind in its search for meaning are extraordinary, and as we will discover, continue to influence the great minds and artists of succeeding eras.