Aegean and Greek Civilization: A New Way of Thinking



Aegean and Greek Civilization: A New Way of Thinking


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Aegean and Greek Civilization: A New Way of Thinking


Aegean and Greek Art


The earliest ancestors of what came to be known as the Greeks thrived in the islands of the Aegean sea, the Greek mainland, the Islands of Crete and the Cyclades. From about 5000 BCE to about 3,000 BCE we refer roughly to the peoples of the area as the ”Aegean” culture. Though successful as farmers and herdsmen, they also were always in close proximity to the sea, and developed a reputation as clever sailors. This, in combination with the beautiful but rugged, windswept, and at times harsh coastline and climate of these environs, created an ideal of rugged individualism, self reliance, cunning, and diplomatic acumen, that served as a basis for Greek ideas of” how one lives life well” for hundreds of years.


Cycladic culture, 3000-1600 BCE


The most engaging relics left from this late Neolithic/early Bronze Age culture include inscrutable terra cotta palettes, called “frying pans”, and, most famously, carved marble figures. These islands, southeast of what would become Athens, were noted for having significant veins of brilliant white marble, especially the islands of Naxos and Paros.


Female Figures, from the Cyclades, marble, 13” – 6’, 2500-2200. Little to nothing is known about these elegantly reductive figures; they may be deities or burial effigies. Female figures are much more abundant than male figures, and they all possess this simplified, or purified approach to the anatomy --- the elemental faces may suggest that they are representations of archetypes or idealized human beings. Their sense of refined surface and consistent, though not entirely accurate, anatomy, hints at a connection with later, classic Greek sculptural concerns.


Harp Player, marble, 2500-2200. This enigmatic musician, while reductive like his erect sisters, hints at a sense of movement and animation with his arms floating over the implied harp strings. The sculpture also indicates an early use of undercutting, removing the image from the marble block by opening up negative spaces around the body and chair.


Minoan Culture, 3000-1400, Isle of Crete


Taking its name from the legendary King Minos, the Minoan civilization flourished primarily on Crete, the people making their living from farming, herding, and fishing. The lack of metal on the island forced them to become a talented seafaring culture, taking advantage of the islands harbors and location to develop extensive trade relationships with other cultures in the Mediterranean.


Palace Complex at Knossos, 1700-1300. Our primary architectural artifacts, extensive palace complexes, reveal the Minoans as concerned more with practical pleasures and celebration of the natural world than with the glorification of rulers or specific dieteies. The palace at Knossos, legendary home of King Minos, was the setting the later Greeks gave for the legend of the Minotaur, a rather tragic monster who lived in the Labyrinth under the city, which was designed by the court architect, Daedalus. The structure in fact was built with a seemingly rambling floor plan, which takes advantage of the natural sea breezes to cool the halls in the intense sun of Crete. As with the spaces as a whole, columns used in the palace are of a human scale, providing light, air, and aesthetic wholeleness to the architectural setting.


Bull Jumping, Knossos, wall painting, 1500-1450. The walls of the palace were decorated with mosaics of the sea and its creatures, and images such as this, of some sort of ritual or game involving a kind of graceful bullfighting ballet. A fluid sense of movement pervades the paintings, with partially nude young men and women dancing athletically through the panels.


Female Snake Handler, faience, 1700-1550. This lustrous glazed ceramic figure apparently represents a common fashion of dress for Minoan women, bare-breasted with a long, tiered skirt, as well as a religious ritual. The figure controls wild snakes in each hand, balancing a wild cat on her head. In later Greek rituals, and even in modern evangelical practices in America, a participant in a devotional ceremony would enter into a trance, and cavort with poisonous snakes with impunity, as a demonstration of the presence of divine power and grace. It is generally thought that this figurine relates in some way to that tradition.


Octupus Flask,  ceramic, 1500-1450. Full of unrestrained life, this image of an octopus involves the graceful shape of the sophisticated ceramic vessel in an evocation of the dynamism of the sea. The vessel is part of an active system of workshops which started in about 2000 developing a high level of technical skill in wheel thrown pottery, serving the needs of the extensive activities of the court and administration of the cities of Crete.


For reasons largely unclear, the Minoan civilization declined after 1450, their resources taken over by the mainland Greeks, known as the culture of the city of Mycenae.


Mycenean Culture, 1400-1100


In contrast to other cultures of the Aegean, the Myceneans seem to have developed a highly fortified, centralized, and stratified society, with a class of royalty clearly in power. The fortifications of the great city of Mycenea indicate that they had amassed wealth and power, which they sought to protect and preserve with the stones and symbols found at the site.


Lioness Gate, Mycenae, 1300-1200. The massive gateway to the Citadel, an entry to the great circle wall around the fortress, communicates the power and majesty that must have been wielded by the Mycenean King. It also demonstrates an early Greek interest in the embellishment of the post and lintel architectural style, with the pediment decorated with figurative elements.


Treasury of Atreus, 1300-1200. A prime example of the passage grave style of tomb common in the city, it illustrates the use of a corbelled vault, and the use of a tomb as a place to keep and amass treasure and valuables.


Funerary Mask, 1550-1500. From a royal tomb, this is an example of the apparent tradition of the heroic death-mask used in Mycenae, taking the features of an actual person and imbuing them with a kind of transcendent majesty, a way perhaps of honoring the life of the deceased.


Greece, 900-30 BCE


After a time of chaotic settlement, warfare, and immigration instigated by the fall of the Myceneans in 1100, a group of settlements of a mixture of natives and Asian newcomers began sharing a common language and interests in around 900. By about 800-700 they had formed a distinctive form of Greek self-government called the Polis, or city-state, organized around a loosely representative form of government. The rocky coastline of  and openness of Greece on all sides to invaders formed the Greek character --- appreciative of physical beauty and pleasure, but valuing above all a creative and adaptive spirit --- in the epic poem The Odyssey, the goddess Athena praises the hero Odysseus for his cunning, his ability to control his passions and creatively think his way out of endless difficulties.


Greek Religion


What we know of Greek Religion and Mythology comes to us from the earliest Greek texts, The Iliad and the Odyssey, by the poet Homer, from about 1000 BCE, and from the Roman poet Ovid. Their beliefs rose from the various folk religions of the Aegean and Asian settlers of Greece, and, like the Egyptians, this assembly resulted in a large pantheon of gods and goddesses. Unlike, the Egyptians, however, the final coterie of ruling gods were not part animal and part human, they were amplified human beings, or, more exactly, amplified aspects of human nature; all of the various virtues, vices, talents, and aspects of the human psyche were given male and female form in the dieties, which interacted with humans on a regular basis.


In the Beginning, Uranus (the sky god) and Gaia (the earth goddess) gave birth to the first race of gods, the Titans. The list of these giant beings, the Elder Gods, ruled over the universe, included Cronus (in Latin Saturn): the supreme god, Ocean: the river encircling the earth, Atlas, and Prometheus; savior of Mankind. These and very few more of the numerous Titans were allowed to remain after the assent of the Olympians, deities who ruled over the earth from the heights of Mount Olympus, or more precisely, from a perfect world somewhere above the pinnacle of the mountain.


Although there is an extensive list of deities, each with symbols, histories, and various attributes, it is useful in considering their art and its connection to culture to think of them as archetypes, or symbolic examples and images of human attributes. The most influential in larger Greek culture are:


Zeus: supreme sky-god, represents aggressive and dynamic will to power, the will to physically create. Created many lower gods in liaisons with human women through his assuming of different forms.


Hera: Zeus’wife, represents fidelity, integrity, sanctity of motherhood


Ares: god of war, or particularly, of the brutality, aggression, and superhuman intensity of war.


Hestia: goddess of the Hearth, her shrine is the home itself, represents the sacred space of the sancuary of the family home.


Poseidon: god of the sea, of untamed, primeval natural forces, of the unknown, fluid depths of the psyche.


Hades: god of death, the unknown underworld, that which cannot be known.


Persephone: goddess of fertility, queen of death, wife of Hades;  she spent six months above ground and six months below, symbolizing the cycle of death and life.


Artemis: goddess of the hunt, the moon and wild animals, twin sister of Apollo.


Apollo: son of Zeus and a daughter of earth, god of the rational mind, of mathematics, the illuminating sun, of the order in music, of normative consciousness, of healing


Athena: goddess of war, of wisdom, of victory and the city; patroness of Athens. Born fully grown from the head of Zeus, she represents pure, focused mental energy.


Aphrodite: one of the daughters of Zeus, goddess of sensual love, physical affection, sentimental and sensory attachments, wife of Hephaistos.


Hephaistos: god of the forge, of the crafts, of the creative power of the unconscious, on introspection and solitary self-knowledge.


Hermes: the trickster god, the god of thieves and communication, commerce, of healing; guide through dangerous places, son of Zeus and the daughter of Atlas.


Dionysos: son of Zeus and the mortal woman Semele, he was the god of passion, of losing one’s identity in nature, of the creative, fluid unconscious, of unstable identity, of theatre, of intoxication; his mortal wife Ariadne, Princess of Crete, whom he rescued after she was deserted by Theseus on the Isle of Naxos; she was eventually deified.


Demeter: goddess of the harvest


The Greek deities needed sacred places, and temples / sanctuaries were made for them. Apollo’s sanctuary was a temple built at the Oracle of Delphi, a natural site of fissure between the earth and the underworld; Delphi was situated on the slope of Mount Parnassus in central Greece. Parnassus’ twin peaks were dedicated to the great muses, Apollo and Dionysus, with the clear stream of inspiration Castalia, flowing out from between them.  Hestia’s place was the hearth of the home, as often was Hera’s. Athena had many temples built for her, as did Zeus, though his most proper home was Olympus. Devotion to Dionysus was made in the wilderness during ecstatic nocturnal dance ceremonies, but also at the theatre; amphitheatres were routinely devoted to him. What is most significant is that these holy places were tied to specific places in the earth; one may think of the earth as a great body, with the deities occupying various parts of the cosmos of its being.


The Greeks had no clear notion of an afterlife; most mortals went to an indistinct place of shadows after death, only certain, exceptional, heroic humans lived eternally with the gods. What was valued was an individual life well lived, a life which balanced passion and reason, (Dionysus and Apollo), and valued the struggle and knowledge of one’s self gained through the tests of life.


Pre-Archaic Period (Geometric and Orientalizing) 900-600 BCE


The beginnings of Greek art are marked primarily by the rise of a style of ceramic painting quite different from that of the Minoans or Myceneans; the Geometric and Orientalizing periods describe the evolution of imagery within the early Greek pottery decoration styles. For our purposes, they are considered as one period, the Pre-Archaic.


Centaur, late 10th Century. This boldly decorated, hollow formed sculpture represents the Greek interest in rhythmic decoration, and the concern with the dichotomy of carnal/rational human identity.


Dyplon Vase, from Athens 750. This funerary vessel, a grave marker meant to hold offerings of wine or oil, is covered with lines of continuous narrative, recording the mourners at the funeral, the procession, and perhaps stories about the deceased’s life. It illustrates the Greek interest in the telling of a human story, in this case with abstracted but animated human and animal forms.


Pitcher from Corinth, 600, is an example of the so-called Orientalizing period. The mythological creatures depicted are rendered in a bold, colorful, and large scaled style of figure painting, emphasizing interest in the focusing of narrative energy in fewer, spatially active, images.


Archaic Period, 600-480


A period of intense growth for the Greek city-states and colonies; Athens in particular begins to emerge as a cultural and artistic leader. The construction of Temples expands and develops, and the orders of Greek architecture are born. The period is also marked by the rapid advance of freestanding sculpture, and by the refinement of vase painting into the Black Figure Style.


Greek Temples


Each temple is a representation of a discreet, sacred space, and the ceremonial definition of a manner of human approach to the space. The innermost portion of the temple, the cella or naos, houses an image of the deity. The cella is defined by a walled area, generally rectangular, which is buffered from the outside world by a rectangular colonnade surrounding the cella wall.


The balance of the proportions of the parts of the temple was a matter of exceeding importance, in particular in proportion to physical human dimensions. The attainment of balanced perfection of the individual person, mentally, physically, and emotionally was the primary goal of Greek art. This idea was approached by Greek philosophers through the idea of Metaphisics; simply put, the notion that the world can be known, and that all things are known through their essences. The temple gives visual form the essence of the deity and humans’ relation to it. The essence of the form of the temple can be encapsulated in The Golden Section, the most visually satisfying ratio. In a line divided by the golden section, the shorter length is to the larger as the larger is to the sum of the two, roughly a ratio of 3 to 5. The Pythagoreans saw the universe in just such terms: the unseen essence of all things is a number. So, the overall dimensions and subdivisions of the temple were determined by the golden section. Other sorts of standards were used for various parts of the structure: the proper height of a column was described as properly being (like the proportions of the human body) six times the “footprint” of the column. Other concessions to human perception, such as the concept of entasis, use deliberate distortion of architectural units to allow for the tendency of the eye to curve straight forms. The intent was to make the forms look straight to the human eye. The temple embodied the essence of what the idea of divinity looked like from the human perspective, and were envisioned and used as much from the outside as the inside.


The Orders


 Temples were built using the same basic units of construction: columns, entablature, and pediment, but were varied in accordance with the Orders. The orders are systems of elaboration or embellishment of the basic structural elements of post and lintel construction. Originally Greek buildings were made of wood, and some of the elements of decoration of the eventual white marble temple, (such as the triglyph and metope being derived from the ends of the rafters of the roof being cut of, their ends exposed), are direct descendents of these ancient conventions. The orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, were named after legendary ancestral peoples of the Greeks, and became more elaborate, delicate, and refined as they progressed historically through the orders. They can also be thought of as symbolic expressions of the diverse influences of the various cultures that came together to form Greece, and the regular form of the temple in general as the unifying idea of Greece.


Temple of Hera I, Paestum, 550 BCE. A prime example of an early Doric Temple; it achieves a massive, stoic presence through the simplicity of the plain, cushion-like capitals, the rather oversquare proportions, and the grounding effect of the extreme entasis of the columns.


Medusa, or Gorgon, pediment relief sculpture from the Temple of Artemis, Korkyra, 580.

The terrifying pediment decoration of the Medusa may have served many purposes on the Temple of the virgin goddess Artemis; the Gorgons were discussed as symbols of the analytical mind, which “freezes” into stone all false or misleading emotions, to see them for what they are --- a necessary state of mind for one who hunts, whether actual game or a goal or idea.


Dying Warrior, Temple of Aphaia, Aegina, 480. This fragment of the sculptural program from the east pediment of the temple demonstrates the development of architectural sculpture in-the-round, the sculptor freeing the figure totally from the block. Here we see in particular the Greek Hero, attempting to raise himself to continue the fight, absorbed by the honorable struggle, embodying that notion uniquely Greek, Pathos, or, noble suffering. The body is articulated in more than one plane of space, creating a powerful sensation of movement, and the capturing of a transient moment in time, joined with the other figures in the scene, evoking a very human narrative. While retaining a partially Archaic tension and stiffness in the features of the body, the anatomy of the figure is very accurate. This work, as with all Greek Sculpture, was originally brightly painted, to give it the most powerful sense of reality possible.


Kouros, 600. In the midst of the Archaic period, Greek sculptors began a tradition of free standing figures, often used as a sort of procession leading to a temple. The nude male figures, called Kouroi, (boys) are at the same time very much like Egyptian standing Ka Statues: rigid, formal, four-square, with one foot stepping into the future. Although they may have been made in honor of particular great athletes, they are truly neither portraits of specific mortals, nor of gods. With spaces cut from between the arms and legs, tensed and well developed musculature, and alert, smiling faces, they seem to represent the Greek ideal of a poised individual, ready to address the world and his fate in it. The total nudity of the male figures separates them from class or society; they are the essence of Greek male consciousness. These sculptures often commemorated victory in battle or in sport through a portrait of the hero’s body rather than his face.


Kroisos, Athens, 525. Perhaps a monument to a dead war hero, this Kouros illustrates the transition of Greek sculpture from stone to almost living flesh.


Peplos Kore, Acropolis, 530. Female memorial or votive figures, Korai (girls) were always clothed, though sharing the same Archaic Smile as the Kouroi. Wearing specific female dress styles (here, the Peplos), the sculptors endeavored to make the body alive and sensually present beneath the cloth.


Calf Bearer,  Acropolis, 560. Likely the representation of a priest or other devotee bringing a sacrifice to the altar of a deity, it is full of vivid life and youth, with a suggestion of the actual movement of the body as it walks, of weight moving side to side and front to back.


Black Figure Vase Painting


During the later Archaic Period, Greek Vase Painters developed more and more precise methods of rendering forms and decorations, and began to see themselves with more prestige, signing their work with pride.


Dionysus Amphora 540. This work, as do many amphoras, used both for ceremonial and practical purposes, depicts a devotional scene involving a deity. The scene on the vase is rendered as calm, measured, and dignified, but actual Dionysian ceremonies, which took place at night, in the wilderness, conducted by his female disciples, (maenads), were often wild, ecstatic, and violent events. Trance inducing music and wine would help to transport worshippers into a transcendent state, where they would often tear a live animal apart and eat the raw flesh in communion with the god. Dionysos is often depicted as wearing women’s clothing, a destroyer of differences.


Exekias, The Suicide of Ajax, 540. This Athenian artist was known for the quiet grace he lent to his subjects, depicting the tragic hero Ajax preparing to redress his humiliation and loss of honor by suicide. After carrying the fallen body of Achilles, he was unable to bear his dishonor when the Greeks gave Achilles’ armor to Odysseus instead of his loyal follower Ajax. The graceful rhythm of the curves of his back, the shield, and the form of the vessel lend the moment before he falls on his sword a sense of timeless, inevitable grace.


Classical Period 480-320


One of the predominant events that catalyzed the Greeks into what we now call the Classic period was the routing of their long standing enemies, the Persians. By 479 the small but resourceful Greek army and navy had ejected the Persians from their occupation of many Greek poli. This was facilitated in large part by the uniting of two major feuding Poli of the Peloponnese peninsula, artistic Athens and militaristic Sparta. The increasing artistic achievements of the Greeks was made possible by the necessity to rebuild after the great wars leading up to 479.


Apollo with Battling Lapiths and Centaurs, Temple of Zeus, Olympia, 470-456. In celebration of the exit of the Persians from their city, the citizens of Olympia erected a temple in honor of Zeus and Hera. The few fragments remaining from the west pediment sculpture group are nonetheless evocative and expressive of an attainment of a sense of pliable naturalism, and a visual form for the balance of passion and reason. A dignified Apollo stands amidst a raging battle of centaurs and humans, his composure seeming to be the decisive virtue in his victory.


 Kritios Boy, Athens, 480. Apparently the rendering of an perfectly athletic adolescent boy by the sculptor Kritios, this work demonstrates an early use of contropposto, or counterpoise, shifting the weight naturally to one leg, creating both a graceful S-curve in the sculptural composition, and giving the stone a feeling of living, suggested movement.


Young Warrior, 460-450. A prime example of the Greek mastery of large-scale bronze casting, this sculpture captures both the natural ease of a perfectly tuned athlete, and the refined perfection of nude male beauty.


Red figure Vase Painting


Artemis Slaying Actaeon, 470. The continuing development of vase painting found a peak in the creation of the red figure style. In leaving the figure in negative, in red terracotta, the Pan Painter allowed himself both the boldness of a black-silhouetted form and the fluidity of the painted black contour line. Artists were then able to evolve the anatomy and foreshortened space of the figure to a much greater degree. In this scene the virgin goddess Artemis punishes the brazen hunter Actaeon for gazing at her nudity during her bath, by making his dogs mistake him for prey. After he is weakened by their attack, she finishes him off with her unerring aim with the bow.


The Acropolis


Each Greek polis worth its salt had its own “Acropolis”, or high portion of the city, an area particularly well suited to important buildings such as temples. The Athenian Acropolis, with its Agora, or marketplace situated at its foot, was in sorry state when the hero Perikles came to prominence, 480-450.  He created, like his forebear Kleisthenes, a form of representative democracy in Athens, and led the rebuilding of the Acropolis as a means of celebrating Athenian spirit. He commissioned the sculptor Phedias to design the rebuilding, to honor the Greeks and their ideals, (their gods), especially Athena, who had saved the Athenians.


The Parthenon, 447-438. The dominant structure on the Acropolis, the temple to Athena Parthenos (Athena the Maiden, the preeminent virgin goddess), was begun in 490 and partially destroyed by the Persians. Perhaps the most perfect temple of the Doric Order, it uses entasis subtly and to great effect. At its completion, it housed a 13 foot image of Athena in full armor, gilded and brightly painted.


Elgin Marbles, Pediment sculpture from the east end of the Parthenon. These exquisitely balanced and sensual works from the High Classical period exhibit a truly life-like fluidity and conquering of the material; the stone is made convincingly into flesh and cloth, which serves to highlight beautifully the flesh hidden beneath.


Lapith fighting a Centaur, metope relief. This graceful example of a relief panel from the frieze demonstrates precisely balanced torsion and movement, with the virtuous Lapith carrying out the grisly duty of slaying a Centaur with perfect decorum.


The Propylaia, Erechtheion, and Temple of Athena Nike, 437-405. Perikles employed the architect Mnesikles to create an appropriate threshold to the temples on the Acropolis. The Propylaia is an entry gallery, with graceful rows of Ionic columns and containing a picture gallery. The Erechtheion, housing many small shrines, is graced by Ionic columns and Caryatids, maidens serving as columns on the south porch; they represent the women of the city Caryae, whose citizens took sides with the Persians against the Greeks.  For their treason, the men of the town were slain, their city destroyed, and their women enslaved. The lovely Caryatids are forced to carry the burden of the cornice of the structure in perpetuity, highlighting the fact that the Greeks brooked no mutiny. The temple of Athena Victorious (Nike), by Kallikrates, contains the graceful image of Nike Adjusting her Sandal, a relief showing the winged figure of victory in a relaxed and sensuous moment, light and seductive, an image perhaps of the titillation of victory itself.


Polykleitos, Spear Bearer, 450-440. Polykleitos is credited with creating the first Canon for sculpture: a set of integral measurements of parts of the figure. This is related to the older exhortation of the height – width ratio of a column rightly being 1 to 6. What is truly notable about this work is the fact that the artist is dealing with the depiction of tense vs. relaxed muscles, giving them a much greater sense of natural gravity.


Hellenistic Period 320 –30


After the Second Peloponnesean war, the Spartans defeating Athens in 404, the stage was set for the final major era of Greek art, culminating in Hellenism, 320-30. The philosopher Plato’s famous student Aristotle had yet another famous student, Alexander of Macedon, whose father, Phillip II, passed on his ambition of dominance over the Greek world to his son. Although the tremendous internal upheaval of the culture did not thwart its creative spirit, it changed the nature of the art. Hellenistic art is marked by incredible technical proficiency, restless movement, sensuality, and eloquent and frequent expression of the idea of Pathos. The prolific production of Hellenistic art objects was facilitated by the wealth generated by the new, imperialistic Greece.


Praxiteles, Hermes and the Infant Dionysos, 300-250, Aphrodite of Knidos 530. Active in Athens, Praxiteles is noted for his highly sensual and anatomically detailed work. He relaxed the Canon of Polykleitos, and allowed the sculpture to have a slightly off-balance sense of impermanence. The Aphrodite is remote and pristine in her beauty; stepping out of her bath, she feigns modesty as she invites us to behold her.


Lysippos, The Scraper, 330, Alexander the Great 200.The famed sculptor’s work breaks aggressively into the space surrounding the piece, it freely engages the world around it.


Alexander the Great and Darius III at Issos, 310. Mosaic copy of a Greek painting, it depicts the tumultuous moment in the attack of the superior Persian force by Alexander and his troops when Alexander surprises Darius, having broken through his rear flank. We see a very personal, almost intimate moment between two leaders in a battle, a very human moment in a brutal scene.


Theatre of Dionysus, Athens 350.Many theatres were built in the Fourth century, all following the same basic plan of a semicircular, raked audience, and a skene, orchestra, and altar. It arose out of centuries of oral tradition of the reciting of epic poetry, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, by a single storyteller performing on the circular surface surrounding the wine press or threshing floor, evolving into complete City Dionysia, or dramatic festival, with numbers of performers, choruses, and cycles of plays. The Dionysia occurred in the Spring, as a celebration of the triumph of life over death, with the earliest recorded playwright, Aeschylus, having his work performed around 500 BCE in Athens. The earliest recorded winner of the Festival, Thespis, (who may have been a writer, actor, or priest.) emerged out of the darkness of history into fame in 534.


Greek Drama


Greek stories seem to be preoccupied with a central character encountering the vicissitudes of fortune. Beginning with the tragedies of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, one of the earliest recorded mature products of the Dionysia, the playwright explored individual struggle within a political framework, most clearly demonstrated by the trilogy of the Oresteia. Followed by Sophocles, whose earliest text Ajax also was an important subject for vase painting, is best known for Antigone and Oedipus Rex. Sophocles’ contemporary Euripedes won the Dionisia prize many times for his tragedies, such as the Bacchae and Medea, though not nearly as often as the older playwright. The emergence of the Comedy, practiced by masters such as Aristophanes and Menander, came later, and was associated with the winter festival of Lenaea, rather than the normal spring festival of the Dionysia. All parts in Greek Drama were played by men, though women were dominant leaders in the actual worship rituals of the god Dionysus, and therefore had some considerable power in the nature of the stories told at the event.


Pergamene Style


Gallic Chieftan Killing his wife and himself, Dying Gallic Trumpeteer, 220. A powerful variation on Hellenistic style comes from a tribute by Attalos I, ruler of Pergamon, to the war in which Greek forces triumphed over the invading Gauls, or Celts. Eloquent in their expressionism, in their embodiment of pathos, the sculptures originally mounted on a large pedestal testify as to the admiration of the Pergamese of the heroism of the invading barbarians.


Great Altar at Pergamon, 166-156 BCE. The ruler Eumenes II erected this lavish temple, ostensibly to Zeus, but actually in honor of his father, in an example of the most extreme Hellenistic expression of drama, pain, intense movement and energy, and restless dynamism. In Athena Attacking the Giants, we are forced to be empathetic with the suffering Giants, as Athena skirts through the air, yanking them by the forlocks.


Nike of Samothrace 190 BCE. This victorious Athena from the Isle of Samothrace in the Northern Aegean is an essay in fluid, graceful movement; she is in the motion of alighting on the prow of a ship, granting, however fleeting, victory to the Greeks.


Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athanadoros of Rhodes, Lacoon and His Sons, 1st or 2nd Century BCE. Laden with tragedy and suffering, this marble rendering of the Trojan Priest Lacoon gives dramatic form to the ruthless punishment meted out by the Greek gods to those that would defy them. The overly confident High Priest of the Trojans taunted the Greeks before revealing his knowledge of the secret of the gift of the Trojan Horse, and was cast down by the gods as much for his hubris as for simply being on the wrong side. Poseidon cast a torrent of serpents over Lacoon and his sons; they are devoured as the Trojans would have destroyed the small Greek army.


Veiled and Masked Dancer, Market Woman, 3rd and 2nd Century BCE. These small-scale sculptures are evidence of the intense interest of Hellenistic sculptors in depicting real life, and of the widely pluralistic nature of late Greek society.


Aphrodite of Milos, 150 BCE.  While similar to Praxiteles’ Aphrodite in many ways, this Hellenistic work is much more active in three-dimensional space, with an undeniable sense of movement, torsion, and realism. It is conjectured that she may have originally held the polished shield of Ares, god of war, on her knee, accounting for the extremity of counterbalance in her pose. In this context we can imagine her admiring herself, in a state of undressing, before or after her mythical tryst with Ares.


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