Essential Reading: The Greeks and their Neighbours

Page 63 of the course notes directed me to the Greek chapter in WHA

“Now that you’ve read this short overview, turn to WHA and read Chapter Four, ‘The Greeks and their Neighbours’, making brief notes as you read. ” p63

Here are some of the notes I made…

1 Political, economic or social factors
  • The Hellenic world was not just Greece, it was in Italy, France, Aegean islands, Sicily and Spain. “Dispersed, not centralised, maritime and linked only by the sea, not territorial and closely integrated, it lacked any political unity and even a common system of government.” (WHA p116)
  • The Greeks called themselves Hellenes. Anyone who didnt speak Greek was a Barbarian. (p116)
  • They put geometric vases on graves in Athens but Greeks were not really interested in the afterlife. (p118)
  • They love male nudity but females always clothed in art (except pornography).
  • Aphrodite was originally Phoenician mother goddess Astarte (who was nude). p120.
  • The god Zeus was the most powerful and Hera was his wife.
  • Games in Olympia (and elsewhere) were like religious festivals. Athletes were naked and also soldiers, from the upper classes. “The workforce consisted of second class citizens and slaves who left these favoured young men to devote themselves to athletic training when they were not fighting” (p123)
  • The Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC.
  • 6th c BC: ‘love names’, nearly always male, appear on numerous cups and vases of this period, some of which are decorated with paintings of handsome young athletes and others are still more explicitly homo-erotic”. (p124)
  • Characteristically Greek art began to flourish as did their politics with the introduction of the Polis, (from which we derive the world politics) is ‘the self governing state’. (p116/125)
  • The various ‘city-states’ were many but tiny by today’s standards, the largest, Athens, for example was no more than ¼ of million people and only 1000 sq miles. Artists in search of patronage would travel from one to another so potentially could find more work than bigger empires such as Egypt where the social structure was less varied and a lot more hierarchical. However, the Egyptian patrons could afford to commission work on a much larger scale.
  • Classical period is known as the time between the time of the Persian war (480 BC) & the temporary unification of Greece by Philip II of Macedon (338 BC). (p126)
  • 5th C BC, Athens, “the most extraordinary flowering of artistic and intellectual activities the world had ever seen”. Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles & Euripides, comedies of Aristophanes (poetry) and teachings of Socrates (philosophy).
2 Changes to status or training of artists
  • Athenian artists signed their vases during mid 6th to mid 5th century BC. eg “Exekias painted me and made me” (p125) this is significant as no other civilizations were signing works until centuries later.
  • Architects recorded for the Parthenon are Callicrates & Ictinus. Phidias is said to have supervised all the sculptural work and created the colossal Chryselephantine (huge ivory & gold Athena inside).
3 Development of materials and processes
    • introduction of working with Iron saw the start of a cultural recovery from the dark ages (start of first millennium bc). (p117)
    • Mid 7th century BC, learned new stone working processes from the Egyptians which they adapted to marble.
    • “Kritios Boy (so-called because of similarities with statues by Kritios, the 5thc Athenian sculptor, whose works are unfortunately known only from later descriptions).” (p123) Carved in marble circa 480 BC marks a turning point in the naturalism of the kouroi
    • Sculpture was painted with vivid colours and not bleached white with age as we see them today. p123
    • Foreshortening of human foot represented in Wrestlers, from a statue base c 500 bc (carved relief) Artist showed “delight in bodily movement” (p124)
    • “The Doric temple, especially when seen obliquely – the lay-out of sanctuaries reveals that the oblique view was that envisaged by the architect – appears to be perfectly rectilinear and regular. This is a carefully contrived illusion. The lines are not straight, nor are the columns equally spaced.” (p129) Greek architects built ‘optical refinements’ into the Parthenon to create this illusion, the platform is gently curved down from the middle, the columns all slope inwards (up to 2 inches), some are thicker, they are slightly convex and bulge a bit at the top (entasis), they are not evenly spaced at the corners, the platform and steps have convex curves which slightly reduce in size in the entablature and the entablature slants slightly inwards. (p129/130).
4 Styles and movements
  • Archaic Greece. late 7th-early 5th century BC (p120). eg Proto-geometric vases (p117), kouroi (life sized, slightly stiff, freestanding statues of athletic naked boys) (p121), korai (female kouroi, clothed and not striding forward, usually translated as ‘maidens’ p120).
  • Orientalizing Style (p119), 7th Century BC, especially pottery made in Corinth. Also Kneeling Boy from Samos, c 600BC, Ivory.
  • Daedalic sculpture is rudimentary, names after the famous ‘ founder of the art of sculpture’ Daedalus of Crete. (p120)  
  • The Classical period is defined by naturism and idealism (starting 5th century BC)
  • Not much survives of the visual art of the classical period but enough ruins survive that & historical writings about them that we can assume that they were as amazing as the literary works of the time. P126.
  • The Parthenon characterises the classical period in Greek art. “Bold in outline, delicate in detail, majestically imposing, yet build to a scale of proportions so carefully regulated by the physical and mental capacities of humanity that it is not at all overpowering, the Parthenon is so designed that all the parts are intimately adjusted in scale and size to one another and to the whole”. p126
  • “The Parthenon is a supreme example of a Doric temple” (p128)
  • Useful diagram breakdown of Doric & Ionic orders on p131.
5 Inside and outside influences
  • Archaic patterns sometimes contained Asian influences (p119), referred to as Orientalizing Style
  • Mid 7th century BC, trading station with Egypt supplied exposure to monumental sculpture and architecture in stone. (p120)
  • “Until later into the 6th century BC painters continued to render figures in the conceptual Egyptian manner.” (p123)
  • “The Greeks learned the technique of building with posts and lintels, or rather stone columns and entablatures, from Egypt. But to answer their own needs they turned the Egyptian temple inside out”. (p128) “Emphasis was placed on its exterior rather than – as in Egypt – its interior.” (p128)
6 Critics, thinkers and historians
  • Herodotus p116
  • Romans believed that Greek ‘canonical’ works set the standard of excellence to which all art should aspire.
  • Plato’s Academy “Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry”. (p117)
  • According to Homer: metalwork (especially shields) was the most highly regarded art in archaic Greece. p119
  • Plutarch (c AD 46-c 127), “Greek biographer and essayist”, “ascribed a timeless quality to the buildings on the Acropolis”. p126/128.
  • Pausanias (fl. AD 150-70), “Greek traveller and antiquarian”, described the gigantic statue of Athena inside the Parthenon which no longer survives. P128


Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing


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