4: Greece (Fifth century BC to First Century AD)- History of Art

4: Greece (Fifth century BC to First Century AD)- History of Art

The sudden awareness of the transition of Art to freedom took place in between 520 BC and 420 BC. As the fifth century concluded, artists along with the public realized the actual power they possessed in terms of skill.

Despite the fact that artists were still identified as craftsmen, an overwhelming population started taking a keen interest in the artist’s work without any bias or perceiving it as something that fulfilled a particular function, entirely viewing Art for its purity. People had started differentiating between various Art schools belonging to different regions, thereby understanding diverse styles, traditions, and processes. As a result of these comparisons of schools, competition increased and artists started putting in all the more effort that eventually gave rise to the variety in Greek Art that was and still is worthy of appreciation.

Changes in architectural styles were notable, particularly the shift from Doric to Ionic style. For instance, the renown Parthenon that was constructed in the Doric style back then was replaced by the Ionic building style, that exuded changes in appearance and character. The photograph below is of Ionic temple namely “Erechtheion”, whose columns are less sturdy and tough. The headpiece on top was no longer unembellished instead, richly ornamented volutes existed on the sides to support the beam upon which the roof rested. So the spiral scroll volutes fulfilled a function instead of mere decorated extensions.

After the generation of the most popular sculptor of Athens namely “Phidias”, Athens indulged in a battle with Sparta, that marked the decline of prosperity and peace in Greece. In 408 BC followed by a brief period of calmness, the goddess of victory was erected on the Acropolis, along with which sculptures and other ornaments also started to exude the Ionic style.

A Goddess of victory. From the balustrade around the temple of Victory in Athens. Erected in 408 BC, Athens, Acropolis Museum

The image above depicts the goddess of victory, sadly mutilated, nevertheless emanating a profound attraction. It is a female figure, one of the numerous goddesses of victory, attaining a peculiar posture to loosen her sandal as she walks. The brief pause is depicted in such a meticulous manner, the thin drape encapsulating her body. These works were a manifestation of the artist’s freedom during that period, this ease and righteousness made him a bit self-conscious too.

In comparison, the artist who did the marble frieze of the Parthenon back then in 440 BC, did not ponder and form opinions of his Art. He knew he had to execute a particular task and that’s it, hardly conscious of the fact that people would be discussing and appreciating his craft a thousand years later and more.

Perhaps Frieze of the Victory temple marked a change in attitude as the artist felt immense pleasure derived from his achievements. The approach towards Art changed during the 4th century. In contrast to Phidias’s sculptures of gods that gained popularity all over Greece, the fourth-century statues of the great temple acquired admiration by virtue of their beauty as great works of art. Paintings and sculptures then became part of discussions amongst the educated class of Greece, similar to the analysis of poetry and theatre. In a way, Art appraisal and criticism of form and creation made an appearance on the urban landscape of Greece.

Praxiteles was considered to be the master of Greek Art of the 4th Century AD, known for his satisfying, pleasant and expressive creations. His widely popular work was the depiction of the goddess of love, the young charming aphrodite stepping into her bath. This work is also most celebrated because of its mention in poems. Unfortunately, this iconic work had disappeared.

Detail from the procession of horsemen, the marble frieze of the Parthenon, about 440 BC, London British Museum.

Another known piece by Praxiteles was the statue of the god Hermes holding young Dionysus on his arm and playing with him. In comparison to the Greek sculptures of 580 BC, we can sense the massive transformation in Greek Art over a period of two hundred years. In the work of Praxiteles, sculptures have far more fluidity and are less robust.

The god Hermes stands before us in a calm and composed manner, a comfortable posture that does not diminish or weaken his dignity. This effect achieved by Praxiteles makes us realize the importance of lessons of ancient Art discussed earlier. Praxiteles in his practice focused on body joints that explained the physical working of the human body. He was able to master the art of depicting bones and muscles in the most delicate and realistic manner.

It is important to note that Praxiteles and other Greek artists had immense knowledge of the human body that enabled them to achieve tremendous beauty in their works. Their works are the epitomes of the human form and anatomy in terms of symmetry, delicacy, detail, and realism. They idealized beauty to such an extent that they preferred to omit certain flaws or irregularities that did not conform to their notions of the exemplary body.

Many of the most notable works of Classical Art that were later regarded as perfect sculptures of the human form, were actually copies of the ones created by the Greeks during that period. The image below is of Apollo Belvederes.

Apollo, Belvedere, Roman Marble Copy, Greek Statue dating from about 350 BC.

The ancient types had begun to breathe under the hands of a skilful sculptor, and they are like real human beings standing in front of us and yet as been from a different world.  The Apollo Belvedere represents the ideal physical body of a man, as he stands in front of us with an extended arm and head turned on a side-ways as if he is following the arrow, we have no doubt saying that each part of the body was given characteristic.

”Venus of Milo” which was made in the later period,  among the famous classical statues of Venus,  The Venus of Milo was found on the island of Melos, is one the best-known sculpture, it also belonged to a group of Cupid and Venus. It was also designed to be seen from a side and Venus was extending her arms towards the Cupid and we can see the representation of simplicity and the clarity.


With this representation of creating beauty and defining characteristic of figures in marble where the material looks like to breathe, there is one drawback. It was actually possible to create convincing human types by this mean but was this method was enough to represent real individual human being? This idea does not occur to the Greeks until rather late in the fourth century, the idea of a portrait. We hear that the portraits were made in earlier times, but those figures were not good likenesses. In the works of Greek Artists, we noticed that they avoided giving the heads a particular expression.  The paintings and sculptures are not expressionless in the sense of looking dull, but their features were never much to express strong emotions.

The Venus of Milo, Greek Statue of First Century BC

More than that, they learned to seize the workings of the individual soul, the particular character of physiognomy and make portraits in our sense of the word. It was in the time of Alexander that people started to discuss this new art of making and represented portraiture. A writer of that period, caricaturing the irritating habits of flatterers and toadies, mentions that they always burst out in loud praise of the striking likeness of their patron’s portrait.

Alexander himself always preferred to be portrayed by his court sculptor Lysippus, the most celebrated artists of the day, whose faithfulness to nature astonished his contemporaries. His portrait of Alexander is thought to be reflected in a free copy. Which shows How much art has changed since the time of the Delphic charioteer, or even since the time of Praxiteles, who was an only generation older than Lysippus. Of course, the issue with all ancient portraits is that we cannot pronounce on their likeness– in fact then the flatterer in the story. Perhaps if we could see a snapshot of Alexander we should find it quite unlike the bust.

Head of Alexander the Great, Probably the version of the portrait by Lysippus.

Possibly the Statue of Lysippus resembled a God much more than they did the real Conqueror of Asia but so much we can say; man such as Alexander a restless spirit gifted but rather but spoilt by success might have looked like dispersed with its upraised eyebrows and its lively expressions on the face.

The foundation of an Empire by Alexander was an enormously important event for Greek art, for thereby from being the concern of a few small cities into the pictorial language of almost half of the world. The change was found to affect its character. We mostly referred to this art of the later period, not as Greek Art, But as Hellenistic art, because that is the name usually given to the Empire founded by Alexander’s successor on Eastern soil.

The rich Capitals of these Empires Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria and Pergamon in Asia Minor, made different demands on the artists from those which day had been a custom in Greece. Even in architecture the strong and simple forms of the Doric style and easy grace of ionic style were not enough. A new form of the column was preferred, which had been invented early in the 4th century and which was called after the wealthy merchant city of Corinth, (Figure below).

In the Corinthian style, the foliage was added to the ionic spiral volutes to decorate the capital, and there are generally more and richer ornaments all over the building. This luxurious model suited the sumptuous building which was laid out on a vast scale in the newly founded cities of the East. Few of them have been preserved, but what remains from later periods gives us an impression of great magnificence and splendour. The styles and inventions of Greek art were applied on the scale, and to the traditions, of the Oriental Kingdoms. I have said that the whole of the Greek art was bound to undergo a change in the Hellenistic period. This change can be noticed in some of the most famous sculptures of that age.

‘Corinthian’ capital, found in Epidaurus. About 300 Bc

One of them is an altar from the city of Pergamon which was erected around 170 BC- (Figure 0.1)- The group on in the image represents the struggle between the gods and the giants, the work is magnificent but we look in the vein for the harmony and refinement of early sculptures. The artist was for sure aiming at strong dramatic effects. The battle rages with terrible violence.

The clumsy giants are overwhelmed by the triumphant gods, and they look up in agony and frenzy. Everything is full of wild movement and fluttering drapery. To make it all more striking the relief is no longer sit flat on the wall but is composed of almost free-standing figures which in their struggle, seem to overflow on to the steps of the altar as if they hardly troubled about where they belonged. Hellenistic art loved such wild expressions in the artworks.  It is certainly impressive. 

Fig 0.1- The Gods Fighting the Giants- From the altar of Zeus in Pergamon

Some of the works of classical sculpture which have enjoyed the immense fame afterwards were formed in the Hellenistic period. When the group of the Laocoon (Figure 0.2) came to light in 1506, art lovers and artists were overwhelmed by the effect of this tragic group.

The scene is read as terrible which is also described in Virgili’s Aeneid: the Trojan priest Laocoon has warned his compatriots against accepting the wooden horse in which Greek soldiers were hiding. The gods who see their plans of destroying Troy thwarted send two gigantic snakes from the sea which catch the priest and his two unfortunate sons in their coils and suffocate them. It is one of the stories of senseless cruelty perpetrated by the Olympians against poor mortals which are quite frequent in Greek and Latin mythologies.

Fig 0.2- Laocoon and his sons. Athenodoros and polydoros of Rhodes, made about 25 BC, Vatican, Museum

One would like to know how the story struck the Greek artist who conceived this impressive group. Did he want us to feel the horror of a scene in which an innocent victim is made to suffer for having spoken the truth? Or did he mainly want to show off his power of representing a terrifying and somewhat sensational fight between man and beast? He had many reasons to be proud of his skill. The way in which the muscles of the trunk and the arms convey the effort and the suffering of the hopeless struggle, the expression of pain in the face of the priest, the helpless wriggling of the two boys and the way all this turmoil and movement is frozen into a permanent group have excited admiration ever since.

But I cannot help suspecting sometimes that this was an art which was meant to appeal to a public which also enjoyed the horrible sites of the gladiators’ fights. Perhaps it is wrong to blame the artist for that. The fact is probably that by this time, the period of Hellenism, art had largely lost its old connection with magic and religion. Artists became interested in the problems of their craft for their own sake, and the problem of how o represent such dramatic contest with all its movement, its expression and its tension, was just the type of task which would test an artist’s mettle. The rights and wrongs of Laocoon’s fate may not have occurred to the sculptor at all. 


It was in the time and that context that tick people began to collect work of art, to have famous ones copied if they could not get hold of originals, and to pay prices for those which they could obtain. Writers began to be interested in art and wrote about the artists’ lives, collected anecdotes about their oddities, and composed guide-books for tourists.

Many of the masters were painters rather than sculptors, and we certainly know nothing about their works except what we find in those extracts from classical art books that have come down to us. We know that these painters were also interested in the problems of their craft rather than their art serving a religious purpose.

We hear of masters who specialized in subjects from everyday life who painted scenes from the theatres or from barber’s shop, but all of these paintings are lost to us. The only way to form some idea of the character of the ancient painting is by looking at the decorating wall paintings and the mosaics which have come to light in Pompeii and elsewhere. Pompeii was well to do country town and it was buried in the ashes of Vesuvius in AD 79.

Almost every villa and house in the town had paintings on the walls, painted vistas and columns imitation of framed pictures and of the stage. These were not all masterpieces, though it is astonishing to see how much good work of art was there in such a small and unimportant town. The interior decorators of Pompeii and neighbourhood cities obviously drew freely on the stock of inventions made by the great Hellenistic artists. Among much that is humdrum, we sometimes discover a figure of such exquisite beauty and grace as (Fig 0.3) which represents one of the Hours, picking a blossom as if in a dance.

Fig 0.3- Maiden gathering flowers- First Century AD, Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale

Or we find such details as the head of a faun (Figure 0.4), from another painting, which gives us the idea of the mastery and freedom which these artists had acquired in the handling of expression. Nearly every kind of thing that would go into a picture is to be found in these decorative wall paintings. Pretty still lifes for instance such as two lemons with a glass of water, and pictures of animals. Even landscape paintings existed there.

This was perhaps the greatest innovation of the Hellenistic period. Ancient oriental art has no use for landscapes except as setting for their scenes of human life or of military campaigns. For Greek art at the time of Pheidias or Praxiteles, the man remained the main subject of the artist’s interest. The poets like Theocritus discovered the charm of simple life among shepherds in the time of the Hellenistic period, artists also tried to conjure up the pleasure of the countryside fir sophisticated town-dwellers.

These paintings are not the view of a particular country house or beauty scenes. They are a collection of everything that makes a perfect scene. Cattle and shepherds, shrines at distant villas and mountains as shown in (Figure 0.5). Everything was charmingly arranged in these pictures, and all the set pieces were looking and arranged they’re at best. We really feel that we are looking at a peaceful scene.

(Figure 0.4) Head of Faun, Detail of wall painting from Herculaneum

Nevertheless, even these works are less realistic than we might think at first glance. If we were to start asking awkward questions or try to draw a map if locality, we should soon find out that it could not be done. We do not know how great the distance between the villa and shrine is supposed to be nor how near or how far is the bridge from the shrine.

The fact is that even Hellenistic artists did not know what we call the laws of perspective. The famous avenue of poplars, which recedes to a vanishing point and which we drew at school, was not then standard task. Artists drew distant things small and near or important things large, but the law of regular diminution of objects as they become more distant, the fixed framework in which we can represent a view, was not adopted by classical antiquity.

Figure 0.5- Landscape, Wall painting from the first century AD, Rome, Villa Albani

Indeed it tools more than another thousand years before it was applied. Thus even the latest, freest and most confident works of ancient art still preserve at least remnant of the principle which we discussed in our description of Egyptian painting. Even here knowledge of the characteristic outline of individual objects counts for as much as the actual impression received through the eye.

We have long recognized that this quality is not a fault in works of art, to be regretted and looked down upon, but that it is possible to achieve artistic perfection within any style. The Greeks broke through the rigid taboos of early Oriental art and went out on a voyage of discovery to add more and more features from observation to the traditional images of the world. But their works never looks like mirrors in which any odd corner of nature is reflected. They always near stamp of the intellect which made them.