Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The rise of ancient Greece

When Edgar Allan Poe referred to “the glory that was Greece”[1], he was using language typical of both popular and academic studies which has only recently gone out of fashion. In The Story of Art, E. H. Gombrich considers Classical Greece ‘the great awakening’; others routinely use such phrases as the ‘the Greek miracle’. The implication of this language is that Greece is a beacon of special enlightenment and genius. Marx asserted in an early essay that “among the peoples of the ancient world, Greece and Rome are certainly countries of the highest ‘historical culture’”[2]. The praise for contemporary cultures like Neo-Babylon or Persia is rarely so extravagant.

The ‘Charioteer of Delphi’The ‘Charioteer of Delphi’, a bronze sculpture from 474 BCE.

The cultural legacy of the rocky tip of the Balkan peninsula to Europe and to the rest of the world is indeed impressive. Whenever we watch the Olympic Games, or watch a tragedy, or vote in an election, we owe a debt to the ancient Greeks, and European art from the Renaissance to modernism and beyond is steeped in Greek stories, characters and styles. The West presents the Greeks – their philosophical outlook, their art and architecture, and their politics – as the ancestors of its own civilisation. For centuries, Western educators assumed that familiarity with the Greco-Roman legacy was essential to a proper education. For centuries, art academies would use plaster casts of antique sculpture – i.e. Greek sculpture, and Roman imitations of it – as the basis for formal training in drawing. The practice began to disappear in the mid-twentieth century, but copying of classical masterpieces is still practised today (and is even, via the conservative ‘atelier’ movement, enjoying a comeback).

The phase of Greek [3] culture generally recognised as the most important, known as ‘Classical’ Greece, flowered in the fifth century BCE, primarily in Athens. This ‘awakening’ was relatively short-lived and geographically limited. In the subsequent centuries up to the present, Greek art never again achieved a comparable importance or influence. Why did it flower at that particular time? Were the Greeks more gifted than other ancient cultures? Why did their ‘glory’ fade?

We shall explore various aspects of ancient Greek art and culture, and of subsequent eras’ relationship with it, in the next series of articles. To begin, let us take a broad look at its historical background.

The birth of ancient Greek culture

Classical Greece did not spring fully-formed from the hills of Attica. It followed centuries of civilisation in the Aegean, most prominently the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures of the Bronze Age, and cross-pollinations from north Africa and the east.

As we have seen, the Minoan culture peaked at around 2000 BCE and was overrun by the Mycenaeans in 1450 BCE.

‘Mycenaean’ is the name generally given to the warlike Greek culture of the Bronze Age, named after Mycenae, a city in the Peloponnese in southern Greece, but actually extant across Greece including Athens and Thebes [4]. Unlike the Minoans, who influenced them heavily, the Mycenaeans were Greeks – the translation of their Linear B script in the 1950s revealed that it records an early form of Greek. The frescoes, pottery, palaces, grave goods and other treasures created across the span of Mycenaean influence in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean indicate a flourishing and significant civilisation, a warrior society whose strong fortifications place it at an opposite pole to the apparently peaceful Minoans. It was the Mycenaeans or ‘Akhaians’ who, according to Homer’s Iliad, launched a mighty war against the rival power of Troy.

The megaron at PylosArtist’s impression of the megaron or great hall of the Mycenaean palace at Pylos, destroyed in around 1200 BCE.

This rich culture disintegrated during the Bronze Age collapse in the 12th century BCE. All of the palaces were destroyed and most sites were abandoned, indicating a massive depopulation. We have already traced the collapse to a systemic crisis in the ancient mode of production. But precisely how the effects unfolded in this region is still debated by historians and archaeologists. The Greeks’ own tradition, still respected by many historians, blames Dorians invading from the north, but the archaeological record is unclear. Rebellious mercenaries, the Sea Peoples or Mycenaean kings fighting each other, or a combination of these, might be responsible.

The level of material culture in the Aegean nose-dived. The wealth and ambit of the cities shrank, foreign trade and the arts withered, and writing disappeared entirely. Greek culture existed at only a basic level and would not recover for 400 years, leading some to refer to this period as a ‘Dark Age’. (That label is sometimes frowned on, but seems appropriate compared to what came before and after.) No wonder, perhaps, that the Greeks would celebrate the prosperous pre-crisis times in folklore and mythology – the literary works of Homer and Hesiod looked back to the Bronze Age as a golden or ‘heroic’ age, compared to which the present measured poorly.

Archaic Greece

The devastation of Bronze Age Greece created the space for a new civilisation to emerge. Archaeological evidence shows that the economy was reviving by the 8th century. Greek regions developed their production of pottery, oil, textiles and wine for trade. Pottery decoration becomes more sophisticated, and iron goods are of better quality. In 776 BCE the Olympic games were founded, a signal that a new period was beginning.

70% of the land in Greece, a country of mountains, valleys and upland plains, cannot be farmed, and the best of what remained was claimed by the aristocracy. With limited land on one hand yet abundant natural harbours and islands on the other, and possibly spurred by drought and famine, the Greeks became sailors and traders, spreading out from their homeland to colonise the Mediterranean and beyond, from Gibraltar in the west to the Black Sea in the east, and most importantly the western rim of Asia Minor (the Ionian Greeks). This process surely explains why some of the Greeks’ earliest stories, such as Jason and the Argonauts or Homer’s The Odyssey, were accounts of great sea voyages.

This period of expansion and recovery, from about 800-490 BCE, is known as the Archaic period.

Nestor's cupA tantalising symbol of this new era was unearthed by archaeologists at Pithekoussai on the island of Ischia. It is a clay drinking cup from about 750-700 BCE, decorated in the simple, abstract Geometric style that dominated Greek pottery from the Dark Ages until around 700 BCE. What makes it interesting is a three-line inscription in Greek scratched on the side, slightly fragmented through wear, which translates as something like this:

I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks this cup empty, straight away
the desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.

This is possibly, though not necessarily, the first literary allusion – in The Iliad, Nestor is the aged king of Pylos who accompanies the Greek army. Along with the ‘Dipylon inscription’ on another pottery vessel, the so-called Nestor’s Cup is one of the oldest surviving examples of the Greek alphabet. This alphabet, still used today for contemporary Greek, was not related to Linear B – instead it is an adaptation of the alphabet of the Phoenicians. Ischia was an early Greek colony, but it had a Phoenician population too, profiting from its harbour and trade, and the two cultures were in regular contact. Somewhere in the Aegean, from probably around 800 BCE, this meeting of cultures ended 400 years of Greek illiteracy.

Towns like Sybaris in Italy and Syracuse in Sicily became very wealthy, but it was the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor who were the leaders of the economic and cultural recovery. After the Lydians minted the first coinage, trade became easier, and the eastern Greek colonies – Samos, Ephesus, Miletus – prospered even more than the mainland, including in cultural production.

A new politics

The basic form of urban civilisation in ancient Greece, the polis or small city-state, appeared during the Archaic era in this context of trade, coinage, literacy and overseas expansion. By the end of the 6th century the Greek towns numbered perhaps 1500, strung along the coastline “like frogs around a pond” [5], and there was great diversity amongst them. Unlike modern towns they were centres not for industry but for landowners and farmers, still organised on a traditional tribal structure. Wealth, including the best land, was still dominated by the aristocracy, and the masses were compelled to make their living on the least fertile soil.

The grim life of the Greek peasant was lamented in Hesiod’s poem Works and Days, written in about 700 BCE, in which the writer instructs his brother Perses in how to live a just life and exhorts the common people to be satisfied with moderation. For Hesiod, humanity has passed through five ages, and the present age of iron is the worst of them all. It is reasonable to interpret his text – the product of a ‘long and hard career scratching a living from the soil in miserable Askra’ [6] – in the context of the agricultural crisis that is probably responsible for the mass migrations from the mainland.

The Greek migrations are sometimes cast in a heroic light of exploration and discovery, but Plato suggested a rather different interpretation:

When men who have nothing, and are in want of food, show a disposition to follow their leaders in an attack on the property of the rich – these, who are the natural plague of the state, are sent away by the legislator in a friendly spirit as far as he is able; and this dismissal of them is euphemistically termed a colony.[7]

During the pre-literate period the tribal nobles responsible for the military overthrew the kings to become the dominant force during the recovery. From 650 BCE, populist leaders representing the new wealth of the economic recovery began to rise up and challenge the aristocracy. These leaders are known as ‘tyrants’, but the term did not become perjorative until the democratic context of the later Classical era. A tyrant was simply someone who seized power unconstitutionally, and he generally presented himself as a champion of the people to mobilise the peasantry as a power base. These tyrants in different cities did not of course follow a single blueprint, but they were broadly progressive. Pheidon of Argos established a system of weights and measures; Cypselus of Corinth divided the nobles’ land among the people; Peisistratos in Athens encouraged public works, industry and the arts. It is because of Peisistratos that the first standard editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey were written down, and to create employment he launched a building programme to beautify Athens. He redistributed land, reformed the coinage, built alliances with other states, and encouraged economic growth by offering agricultural loans.

The effect of tyranny was to limit the power of the nobility, encourage trade and new colonies, reform agriculture and improve the conditions of the peasantry, not to mention the benefits of patronage for art, architecture, music and literature. The aristocracy had proved vulnerable, in Perry Anderson’s words, to the ‘combined pressure of rural discontent from below and recent fortunes from above’ [8]. Tyranny contained its own contradiction: by breaking the power of the aristocracy and appealing to the commercial class and the hoplites – self-financed citizen infantry – the tyrants were creating a space for forces that would turn against them. It was thus the rule of the tyrants that marked the decisive transition towards the democratic polis of the Classical period.

The Archaic period saw an art emerge which, though influenced by the near east and Egypt, we may consider typically Greek. To the names of Homer and Hesiod we may add those of Archilochus of Paros, Alcaeus of Mytilene and Sappho, the famous woman poet, who raised lyric poetry to a new standard. Pottery moved away from the abstract motifs of the Geometric style, using a variety of techniques and portraying human subjects again in everyday and mythological scenes. Architects laid the principles of the distinctive Greek temple, and sculptors moved away from their Egyptian models towards an early naturalism, producing the kouros and kore figures that filled cemeteries and sanctuaries. The creativity of this period makes the term ‘Archaic’ an unhappy one, with its implication of primitiveness. But the label, artificial though such terms tend to be, refers to a relationship to the so-called Classical period: for the creative peak was still to come.

Classical Greece

The fragmentation of Greece into small city-states and the unsteady balance of class forces led to a fractious and unusually vibrant political life. In Athens, this culminated in a remarkable experiment.

The process began with Solon, whose reforms in around 600 BCE attempted to steer a course between debt-ridden peasants and disenfranchised traders on one hand, and the oligarchy on the other. After Peisistratos and the overthrow of his successors, the aristocracy tried to prevent reform, but was defeated by popular opposition led by the aristocrat Kleisthenes. In 508-7 BCE Kleisthenes made a decisive revolutionary step, taking Solon’s reforms as its foundation.

This next stage of the process did away with old clan loyalties by introducing new tribes based upon deme or place of residence. A council (boule) selected by lot proposed agendas for a voting assembly (ekklesia) composed of all citizens. This assembly became the keystone of a democracy based not upon elected representatives as in the modern West but on direct rule by the demos, or people, themselves. Officials were chosen by lot or election, and terms were kept short to keep offices under control. Leaders thought to be possible tyrants in the making could be ostracised, i.e. exiled for ten years, by popular vote.

By the 5th century BCE, Athens was the economic focus of the Aegean, a maritime power [9] funded by the silver mines at Laureion, and the trading activity of thousands of metics, or foreigners. And it was the most politically advanced city in the world.

Orator's stage on the PnyxThe stage on the Pnyx, a hill in central Athens, where orators would address the Assembly. Photo: Panegyrics of Granovetter.

Democracy had a limited franchise – women, slaves and foreigners were excluded, along with other restrictions, so that out of an estimated population of 250,000 for Athens and the region of Attica, only 30,000 male citizens could take part. The aristocracy was still privileged and held a lot of behind-the-scenes control. Nonetheless, working people, by which we mostly mean the small farmers who made up the majority of the population, held real power in a system that in some respects was more advanced than modern bourgeois democracy.

Despite the quarrelsomeness of the city-states, the Greeks recognised a certain common identity, as expressed at the Olympic games or in common respect for the oracular site of Delphi. This potential for unity was briefly realised by war. When Athens and Eretria intervened to help the Ionian Greek city of Miletus in an uprising against Persia, Greece was drawn into a confrontation with the Persian empire. After two Persian invasions, a league of Greek city-states under Athenian and Spartan leadership won victory at Plataea in 479 BCE. The end of the wars with Persia left Athens at the height of its prestige, but Greece quickly lost its new-found unity with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, in which Athens and Sparta competed for dominance.

There was no single pattern of development across the Greek world, because the fragmentation of the Bronze Age collapse, combined with the mountainous geography, had resulted in a divided Greece composed of independent city states that often saw each other as rivals. Whereas Athens increasingly limited the power of its aristocracy, thrived on international trade and eventually invented the first democracy, Sparta, the other city that had most influence on Greek history, took a different road. Sparta was never a major trading centre. Its major source of wealth was an enslaved population of fellow-Greeks in Laconia and neighbouring Messenia, and it sought to keep control of this large and sometimes rebellious population through a ruthless military system. With a pioneering constitution that was both radical and conservative, the aristocracy never faced the challenge of a tyrant – let alone democracy, which Sparta viewed with suspicion.

It was conservative Sparta that eventually won an hollow victory in the Peloponnesian War. But as full-time soldiers, the Spartans had little time or use for art. Their relative cultural poverty means that Athens has had by far the greater artistic legacy.

Acropolis in AthensThe Acropolis of Athens, topped by the Parthenon.

For out of the cauldron of economic growth and new political structures in Greece, Athens became the centre of an unprecedented cultural flowering. (We shall examine the causes of this in more detail elsewhere.) Greek philosophy and science questioned the natural world, politics, and the nature of humanity; thinkers like Democritus introduced startling scientific theories, such as the existence of atoms. Poets and historians, partly inspired by a rich and poetic mythology, wrote a variety of literature, from the poems of Pindar to the Histories of Herodotus. Theatre reached a new intensity and profundity in the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and many others. Sculptors created a new way of seeing the human body, producing such masterpieces as the Riace bronzes and Parthenon marbles. In pottery, a shift to the red-figure technique allowed vase painters a new detail, liveliness and realism. Architects laid down traditions for the design of monumental buildings which reached their high point in the Parthenon. This remarkable body of achievements make fifth century Greece one of the most creative periods in history. Even if the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War signals the end of its ‘golden age’, there was more to come: Plato and Aristotle, Apelles and Protogenes, Praxiteles and Lysippos, were all active in the 4th century.

Athens’ achievements were recognised in its own day. After the city’s surrender in 404 BCE to the Spartan general Lysander, the Spartans and their allies discussed its fate and, according to Plutarch, some proposed dire punishments. However the outcome is revealing:

And some state, in fact, the proposal was made in the congress of the allies, that the Athenians should all be sold as slaves; on which occasion, Erianthus, the Theban, gave his vote to pull down the city, and turn the country into sheep-pasture; yet afterwards, when there was a meeting of the captains together, a man of Phocis, singing the first chorus in Euripides’ Electra, which begins:

Electra, Agamemnon’s child, I come
Unto thy desert home,

they were all melted with compassion, and it seemed to be a cruel deed to destroy and pull down a city which had been so famous, and produced such men.[10]

If Plutarch is to be believed, it was this appeal for love of Athens’ art that saved it from destruction.


The Bronze Age collapse did not usher in a new mode of production, but the devastation created the conditions for a new phase of growth in the Iron Age. The trader Phoenicians exported civilisation around the Mediterranean and founded Carthage; the old Mesopotamian empires were succeeded by the Persians; the Greeks migrated to new trading colonies and refounded their culture, and under Alexander would export it by force of arms to the limits of the known world.

Yet Athens’ star would not shine so bright again. In the fourth century BCE, the focus of power in Greece shifted to Macedon. Under Alexander the Great, Greek culture was exported across a vast though short-lived empire that stretched from Egypt to the borders of India. This ‘Hellenistic’ period lasted until the rise of Rome as a world power. Thus aristocratic counter-revolution put an end to democracy. Yet even after Greece was absorbed into the Roman empire in 146 BCE, its culture persevered. As great admirers of Greece, the Romans plundered and copied its art, enticed its craftspeople and intellectuals to Rome, and acted as a mediator through which Greek culture survived even into the Christian age – and long after the creative spark had shrunk to more modest proportions in its homeland.

[1] The quotation is from the revised 1845 version of his poem ‘To Helen’.
[2] Marx, ‘The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung’ (1842).
[3] The word ‘Greek’ derives from the Latin ‘Graeci’, i.e. our terminology has been mediated by the Romans. The people English-speakers call Greeks called themselves ‘Hellenes’ and their nation, ‘Hellas’.
[4] There are two ancient cities known to the English-speaking world as ‘Thebes’, one in Greece and one in Egypt. The latter was named ‘Thebai’ by the ancient Greeks – the Egyptians knew it by several names, the modern one being Luxor.
[5] Plato, Phaedo (360 BCE).
[6] From the introduction by Dorothea Wender to the Penguin edition of Hesiod and Theognis (1986).
[7] Plato, Book 5 of Laws (360 BCE).
[8] Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974).
[9] The building of a fleet on the urging of Themistocles gave further strength to democracy, as it placed part of Athens’ military power in the hands of the poor – the oarsmen of the triremes. The aristocracy opposed the fleet for this reason.
[10] Plutarch, Lysander (75 CE).

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