|The Riace bronzes, recovered from|
the sea in 1972
There was of course nothing innately superior about the people living in Greece – happily, contemporary historians avoid the gushings of the last few centuries. And there was no shortage of brilliance among contemporary cultures such as Persia. The Axis Age saw extraordinary cultural leaps in several centres of world culture, and so-called ‘golden ages’ are found elsewhere in history too. India, for example, enjoyed a particularly brilliant period during the Gupta empire of c.320 to 550 CE. When Arnold Hauser refers in The Social History of Art to the ‘native genius’ of the Greeks, we may well wonder where that genius was hiding for the few thousand years before Homer or the two thousand after the Roman conquest, during which – with all due respect – Greek cultural achievement has been much nearer the average.
There was an intensity and innovation in Classical Greece, peaking in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, which can be explained as a particular combination of elements.
The fragmentation of Greece into relatively isolated city-states, and the absence therefore of a hegemonic ruling class and religion, helped open the door to democracy and individualism. The economic revival from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE onwards, assisted by the spread of iron technology, bankrolled an anti-monarchic oligarchy, opened up contacts with the wider Mediterranean and Eastern worlds, and provided resources for cultural investment – a revival later intensified in the epicentre, Athens, by silver mining and imperial tribute.
The advent of literate culture encouraged public debate and scientific inquiry. The Greeks inherited the best of the discoveries of their Iron Age contemporaries – the Phoenician alphabet, Babylonian astronomy, Egyptian sculpture, etc – and assimilated them into a theoretical culture that laid everything open to question. We can credit them with the invention of democracy, history and drama.
The foundations of Classical Greek art rest on a number of factors of which only one – democracy – was unique to Greece. However, it was the individualism which flowed from mass political participation that is probably the most powerful element in defining the art of Greece as against the art of contemporary cultures, underlying its (relative) orientation to the human over the divine, its realism, its observation of nature, and its interest in a sense of time as actually experienced. It was in the wake of the closing down of the democratic revolution by Alexander and the Romans that the world cultural significance of Greek achievements faded.
A millenium and a half later, the achievements of Classical Greece would be selectively fished out of history by the young bourgeoisie and claimed as ancestors, to legitimise their own revolutionary worldview and to create a narrative about the origins of ‘Western’ civilisation which persists to this day. There is some truth in the narrative, but it has been exaggerated by propaganda, Eurocentrism and racism. The West’s debt to the civilisations of the East is at least as immense.
The Classical Greeks created an art which achieved vitality, clarity and harmony, and like any major art, it belongs to all the world.