The first foundation of Greek culture that we will look at is its politics.
In the sixth century BCE, Greece launched an unprecedented political experiment in direct democracy, with its epicentre in the city-state of Athens. This revolution had huge consequences for Greek art.
The origin of the small-scale, isolated Greek polis or city state lay in the fragmentation of Mycenaean culture following the Bronze Age collapse. Typically, the polis was a fortified town surrounded by land and villages. Even before the expansionism of Alexander the Great, there were about 1500 city-states scattered across the coast from Spain and France to the Black Sea and Asia Minor. Few of them had a population of more than about 20,000, and the average was nearer 1000. Each was jealous of its independence and had its own constitution, leading to a great diversity of religious practice, culture and customs.
The small size of these Greek cities made their aristocracies more vulnerable, bringing the gulf between the rich and poor into a more intimate light. The privileges of the kings and their families were resented by those whose wealth was based upon the revival of trade. The new rich, or oligarchs, in many cities overthrew the monarchy to establish republics which themselves became subject to coups by popular ruling class leaders known as ‘tyrants’. The tyrants drew political power from mobilising the masses by making concessions on land and building public works, and in Athens and elsewhere this created the political opportunity for the first breakthrough for the masses in the class struggle of antiquity.
The first steps towards democracy were taken in 594 BCE by Solon, an oligarch who introduced reforms designed to steer a course between debt-ridden peasants and disenfranchised traders on one hand, and the aristocracy on the other. But the decisive change came nearly a century later when the pro-aristocratic Isagoras invited the Spartan army into Athens to help push out his reform-minded rival Kleisthenes. In response, Kleisthenes mobilised the masses, who laid siege to the Spartans and forced them out. The oppressed classes had acted, for the first time in recorded history, as a political agent.
Solon’s constitution was reformed. To break down traditional clan affiliations, citizens would now register by their place of residence and were thus placed on a more equal footing. The officials of legislative bodies were now chosen by lottery instead of being appointed by class or clan.
Democracy, which survived for about 200 years, was an astonishing development. An estimated 40,000 citizens of the city of Athens (out of a population of perhaps 250,000) now had a social power unprecedented in the ancient world. This was a limited suffrage compared to today, but it was a revolution compared to the despotisms of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Nor was it the shallow democracy of modern bourgeois states, whose electorate gets to vote once every five years or so for ‘representatives’ from a selection of ruling class factions. When the Assembly (ekklesia), the main legislative body, met on a hillside near the Acropolis, 6,000 citizens were needed for the meeting to be quorate. These citizens had a direct say in the city’s affairs, not just voting on issues put to them but deciding what the issues were. Greek democracy therefore was participatory, not representative. Freedom of expression (parrhesia or ‘to speak frankly’) meant that any citizen could speak in the assembly regardless of social class. Checks and punishments for elected officials included, in the worst cases, exile for ten years (known as ostracism).
Democracy encouraged a plurality of views, a dialectic that encouraged public debate and transformed intellectual life. Schools of philosophy arose from the desire to learn the nature of truth, the best ways to organise society, and the nature of the gods – if gods even existed at all. This process was assisted by the geography of the region. Unlike the civilisations in China and India, built in great river valleys and immense plains, land was scarce in mountainous Greece. As a sea-trading people based in a series of mostly coastal towns and colonies, the Greeks would have encountered a great variety of religions, philosophies, languages, and arts. An exposure to different worldviews can encourage, in the right conditions, an inquisitive mind: which, if any, of these discourses is actually correct? Unlike more centralised seafaring cultures such as the Carthaginians and Phoenicians, the Greeks could debate these things with a rare freedom. Some of these views were startling: including atheism (e.g. Diagoras) and materialism (e.g. Epicurus and Democritus).
Democracy caused consternation among privileged Athenians. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and playwrights such as Aeschylus and Aristophanes, are celebrated today as amongst the greatest products of Greek culture. But the ruling class, the leaders of Greece’s philosophical and literary life included, resented the constraints placed upon it by democracy, and, when they could, attempted to overthrow it. Socrates for example was associated with a group of conservative intellectuals who attempted to overthrow democracy in the late 5th century BCE. Yet it was only because intellectual life in Athens was so open and critical that a figure like Socrates could exist at all. Athens’ most brilliant cultural figures represented both a reaction against democracy and its highest product.
After Greece was conquered by the Romans, Athenian
democracy died out. Democracy was not seen again in
Europe until the advent of the bourgeoisie, who revived it 2000
years later, in their own forms, for their own reasons.
Unlike a great empire like Egypt, these relatively small, self-contained and democratic communities had no monarchy, bureaucracy and priest caste to insist upon a unity of cultural conventions. Artistic production was still dominated by the ruling class, but the ruling classes were more localised, less monolithic and, in democratic cities like Athens, constrained by the genuine political power of the masses.
This conjunction of elements brought something new to culture, in fact one of the most powerful ideas in history: a thoroughgoing sense of individualism. Each citizen of the polis (provided they were neither female nor slaves) could make an individual contribution to society, and assert their own particular views in competition with those of others. An individual, heroic human being could take control of their own destiny – human beings were the measure of all things. The potent inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, ‘know yourself’ (gnōthi seauton), was the slogan of a society that recognised the inner life of the individual like never before.
It is revealing that in the ancient world, it was highly unusual for artists to put their names to their work or become celebrated. In Greece, however, even the creators of that mass-produced art form, pottery, are recognisable by their individual style and sometimes sign their work. The Greeks consistently proclaim their identity as individual artists, lending history an unprecedented mass of named writers, architects, dramatists, poets and painters.
Let us briefly take the example of sculpture, for which Greece is particularly famed. (We will post on this topic in more detail later.) Influenced by individualism, the Greeks began to break down the rigid conventions they initially imitated from Egyptian art. Greek sculptors gradually became interested in representing particular, lifelike human beings, and to this end sought to depict what they saw, rather than what they had been told or thought they knew. Statues became enlivened by the so-called ‘archaic smile’, anatomy became more realistic, and poses more subtle and elastic.
The dialectic of individualism and scientific inquiry encouraged artists to look again at nature to question tradition and find new ways of seeing. Of course, despite their modern reputation for rationalism the Greeks worshipped an extended family of gods and goddesses and their lives were dominated by festivals, sacrifices and religious rites. This cannot be divorced from their art – almost all of which is inspired by mythology – any more than Greek democracy can be fully understood without its constraints of sexism and slavery. But there was now more space within culture for artists to align with radical political and scientific ideas. Born out of this contradiction, classical Greek art was both ideal and real, typical and individual: it sought a balance between a delight in nature and a very traditional desire for order and proportion.
Even after her independence and democracy were long lost, Athens continued for several more centuries as a centre of education for philosophy, rhetoric and logic. But classical Greek art grew from a combination of elements, some stronger than others. Democracy, and the individualism with which it is entwined, was one of the strongest. It is unlikely to be an accident that the crushing of democracy, under the Macedonians and then the Romans, was followed by the fading of Greek art’s revolutionary flair.