For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.
– Pericles, Athenian general, from the Periclean Funeral Oration
If the Egyptians were obsessed with death and permanence, then the Greeks (Hellenes) and the proto-Greeks, whom we call the Aegean cultures (Cycladic, Mycenaean, and Minoan), were very clearly consumed with life in the here and now.
Even the relatively few objects discovered dating to Cycladic culture more often than not reference the human form. The Greek attitude towards art and the obvious Greek preference for the human form in art and architecture finds its genesis in the Greek religious and philosophical systems of belief.
The Greek philosopher Protagoras famously stated, “Man is the measure of all things.” The Greeks believed this, to the point that the maxim is still considered foundational to understanding philosophy in the West, which is famously preoccupied with Self (man) and how Self relates to the world (how man measures all things). As modern Western philosophy began in earnest with the ancient Greeks, it stands to reason that this Greek proposition still carries some weight in our world today.
But why did the Greeks believe that man was the measure of all things? How did the Greeks become such lovers of themselves that they made their gods like men and their men like gods? We should ask these questions because they are remarkably relevant to our perception of our Selves.
If you believe in something, then your actions will reflect that belief. Otherwise, you don’t actually believe in that something.
We believe in gravity, so we wear parachutes. We believe in order, so we find comfort in traffic laws. We believe in death, because we all die.
This logic applies also to art.
The artist’s beliefs are always wrapped up in the artwork, whether it is overt or disguised or even denied, because art does not exist in a vacuum.
Through this thinking we can begin to see why artists in Greece created art that embodies their beliefs. This is why we need to examine Hellenic beliefs about humanity, about the human form and why it is the most depicted subject in Greek art.
The ancient Egyptians believed in a rigid, very structured form of religion that absolutely dominated their lives. Every action was considered in terms of how it would play out ‘on the other side.’ We’ve just seen in the last lecture how death and permanence are inextricably tied together in ancient Egyptian culture.
But in the Hellenic world, the ancients believed that, in very basic terms, you lived your life, and then you died. That’s it. Kaput. Nothing more.
Now, to head off any misunderstanding or objection about the ever-popular Hades as the destination of the dead in Hellenic culture, let me address this potentially confusing afterlife issue.
Hades is usually reserved for heroes, heroines and more well-known Greek figures, real or mythical. By and large, most Greeks understood that after death, their soul simply went out of their body and into a sort of nothingness…sleep, if you will. Hades was often reserved for punishment – a sort of hell or maybe purgatory. Just ask Odysseus or Achilles what they thought of Hades.
I know it’s confusing, but the point I want to make here is that most Greeks lived life fully because of this awareness that after death, the soul has no definite place of residence, nowhere to go, no company to keep, no destination. Hades is more a physical dwelling in the earth and less a destination for all Greeks. And as there is no Judeo-Christian heaven in Greek mythology, there is quite simply no hope of continuing on after death for most ancient Greeks: Life is for the living.
That begs the question: How did the Greeks live their lives?
The answer is, of course, to the fullest! Their dogma could certainly be summed up in the following mantra: “Play hard, work hard, think hard, party hard, eat, drink and sleep hard, love hard. Do it all, and do it well!”
It is no coincidence that Nike, the company that makes shoes and a million other things for the sports-minded, chose to name their entire line of products after Nike, a minor goddess of victory, the winged attendant on Athena (Greek goddess of war). The Nike trademark ‘swoosh’ evokes the battle cry of the female warrior, almost audible in the graceful, dramatic and commanding figure Winged Victory.
Also called Nike of Samothrace, this world-famous sculpture welcomes millions of visitors every year to the Louvre Museum in Paris.
This attention to the human form manifests early in Greek thought and art, and consistently attests to what the Greeks truly believed – that man was indeed the measure of all things. From the development of archaic sculptures to the idealized human figures created by the Greek Golden Age sculptors, to the use of human proportions to determine the architectural formula for building columns and temples, the Greeks never betrayed this belief in the beauty and aesthetic wonder of the human figure.
Throughout the Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean civilizations, the archeological and artistic evidence proves that both civil war and war with foreign entities almost always occupied the Aegean peoples. We don’t know much about the Cycladic people, only that they buried their dead and had a Neolithic tendency to produce tiny female statues that are often called idols.
Who knows if the Cycladic people worshipped them or not? What we do know is their striking similarity to early Modern abstract sculpture became well known around the same time that early Modern abstract sculpture became both popular and valuable. Many of these ‘idols’ were spirited away by savvy collectors in the early part of last century.
Contemporaneous with the early Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, Cycladic civilization started around 3000 BC, but was assimilated into Minoan culture within a thousand years.
The Minoans, whose culture dates from about 2800 BC to approximately 1200 BC, are remembered today mostly for the legendary minotaur and his infamous labyrinth on the island of Crete, south of mainland (Helladic) Greece.
The story goes that this half-man, half-bull tyrant demanded human sacrifice periodically. Accordingly, young men and women from Athens were shipped off to Crete, to the palace at Knossos, for a deadly game of find-your-way-out-of-the-maze-before-the-minotaur-kills-you.
(This should make you re-think taking your teen to that corn maze this year during harvest…)
Finally, the strapping young Athenian prince Theseus and the wise Minoan princess Ariadne outwitted and then killed the minotaur. Long thought to be a myth, some scholars have nevertheless suggested that the minotaur may in fact have been a priest with a bull’s head who oversaw human sacrifice for the Minoans at the royal palace at Knossos.
Though palace ruins at Knossos do make visitors feel as if they are in a maze, there is no actual labyrinth on the island yet found. But archeologists have discovered art works ranging from fresco paintings of youths leaping over large bulls
to mosaic tiles to small sculptures of female figures. These so-called snake goddesses leave the modern scholar with no clue as to what the Minoans believed or how they worshipped, though many have written endlessly about theories.
Suffice it to say that they probably didn’t worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
There are plenty of bulls, women, and aquatic life in the frescoes and mosaics of the palace at Knossos, but since we cannot interpret Linear A (the written script of the Minoans) we are left only with images of youths jumping bulls, snake-wielding, bare-breasted women, and lovely dolphins. How they all come together is a mystery, but hopefully one day someone will break the Minoan code.
Regardless of the Minoan myth-religious mystery, the Minoans were the apparent victims of a robust Mycenaean population, the third and last culture of the Aegean civilizations.
The Mycenaeans are the legendary provocateurs of the Greek and Trojan War, thought for years to be myth. But in light of excavations at both Mycenaean and Trojan settlements, we now know that Homer’s epic The Iliad is at least partly true.
Though Mycenaean history gets complicated in light of the numerous Greek dramas written hundreds of years later by emotionally wrought playwrights, some of the names identified with Mycenaean culture are Perseus (legendary founder) and his wife Andromeda; Atreus (father of) Agamemnon and Menelaus (brothers); Clytemnestra (wife of Agamemnon) and Iphigenia (their daughter), who was sacrificed to the gods by her father, after which mom killed dad in the bathtub; and finally Helen (wife of Menelaus) and Paris (Trojan prince), star-crossed lovers and war-mongers.
Naturally, the first archeologists digging at the ancient site of Mycenae gave names to some of the artifacts based on this partial list of Mycenaean celebrities.
The so-called Mask of Agamemnon, a gold death mask dating to c. 1580-1500 BC, was discovered in a tomb within the ruins of ancient Mycenae by German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1876.
Soon after he discovered the gold mask, he sent a telegram to a Greek newspaper: “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon.”
Twentieth century scholars have accused Schliemann of forgery while many more have defended him, due to the differences between the Mask of Agamemnon and the other masks found in grave circle A at Mycenae. Though the gold mask is no longer identified as Agamemnon, the name remains the same.
Lucky for us that Schliemann didn’t name it Mask of Venus.
An interesting vase from about 1200 BC shows us the reality of life in Mycenaean civilization. Called the Warrior Vase, the terracotta vessel features a frieze (a horizontal band) filled with a repetitive line of warriors marching off to war.
One lone female, perhaps a wife, waves good-bye and good-luck to the soldiers. This image says it all – the Mycenaean culture revolved around war and loss. Just read any early Greek history text, or the mythology created by man and lived out by the Greek pantheon. Daytime television and primetime dramas can’t even begin to compete with the daily events in the lives of the Greek gods and goddesses, their lovers, children, favorite humans and enemies.
While the jury is still out on when, how and why the Aegean civilizations waned, their eventual successors on both the islands around and on mainland Greece continued in a way of life that was in essence no different. For the Greeks, it all came down to the one chance for greatness in this life because there was certainly nothing to look forward to after death.
After the decline of the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures (c. 1100 BC), the Greeks experienced a tumultuous period often called a ‘Dark Age.’ While I am not a huge fan of this term, it does get the job done: We immediately think of zero cultural offerings, sickness, poverty and death. In some ways, that’s what most Greeks experienced for close to fifty years before the rise of a new era we call the Proto-Geometric period (c. 1050-900 BC.) This era, considered by some to be a continuation of the Dark Age, clearly preceded the Geometric Period, which lasts from about 900 BC to 700 BC.
There is one vase that is particularly interesting and representative of Geometric Greek art, and that is the Dipylon Vase, c. 750 BC. The geometric patterns are apparent and not particularly exciting, but the upper central panel on the front of the vase is fascinating. On top of a funeral bier is a warrior, maybe even a high-ranking, upper-class man, who has died. His corpse is about to be cremated, as was often the case in Greek funerals. But what’s really interesting is the presence of professional mourners, flanking both sides of the funeral bier, and the seated figure with a child to the left as well as the two smaller figures standing up on the bier with the deceased male. Their chests inverted triangles, the figures tear at and yank out their hair in traditional signs of mourning and loss.
This vase continues the tradition begun in Cycladic civilization – the reverence, reproduction and remembrance of the human form. Here is also the perfect Greek reflection of death. This warrior is dead, and his family will not see him ever again; death is final. And unfortunately death also will overcome the two figures on the bier with the deceased –perhaps his wife and child? Beloved servants? His eromenos? Whatever the case, the intensity of the loss of a loved one is exacerbated by the knowledge that, for the ancient Greeks, once you die, then it’s all over. No heaven, no hell, no coming and going between worlds, nothing. This clearly gave a whole new meaning to life.
Not united as one nation, the Greek population on the mainland instead organized themselves by means of city-states (think very tiny nations) who fought with one another incessantly, in the way of siblings from a large, boisterous family. These city-states became widespread just as the Geometric period was ending and the Archaic period was beginning.
In the Archaic period, which lasts a little more than a century, the Greeks began to create life-size sculptures of male nudes called kouroi (kouros – singular). Kouros translates to ‘youth;’ their female counterparts are young women called korai (kore– singular) figures, and are always clothed. The kouroi figures served as either grave markers or temple accessories. On occasion, they perhaps also memorialized Olympic athletes.
When we look at them through the lens of Egyptian sculpture, the connection is clear. The Greeks and the Egyptians did, in fact, have economic relations. As is the nature of any business relationship, the two civilizations also traded ideas and cultural mores.
Kouroi figures face frontally, just as the Egyptian sculptures do, with one foot forward, arms clenched at the sides, and the entire body ramrod straight. Remember that there is no indication of movement in an Egyptian sculpture. Instead, the central idea is heaviness, weightiness – permanence sums it up nicely. But with the Archaic kouroi figures, we almost immediately see the Greeks’ tendency to naturalize the human form.
For starters, they are nude. The Greeks are the first civilization that celebrated the nude figure in art because they basically just adored it. Again, remember that they believed that to be human meant life on earth was a one-shot deal. Thus they began to idealize and idolize the human form in its natural state.
It is also important to note that the Greeks never described their gods as different from men in a physical sense. Their gods merely reflected their own lives, except they were immortal. The Greek gods and goddesses were simply super-human – ageless, beautiful, stronger and faster and wiser than men. And they had access to magical and supernatural powers.
When we consider that the gods were immortal, we can better understand the lust that the Greeks had for this forbidden fruit of the gods. The Greeks realized that they, as mortal man, were fated to die and then fade away into nothingness. The immortal character of their gods was what firmly separated the Greeks from the Olympiad. This yawning separation began to drive the Greeks to seek union between the perfect eternal world of the gods and goddesses and the natural finite world that man inhabited.
For this reason, the artists in the Archaic period began to render their life-size sculptures with a more natural, human style and at the same time a more divine, idealistic style. By looking at these three figures (New York Kouros, Kuoros Anavysos, Kritios Boy), we can see the progression in just a few short years from the more severe and immobile kouroi figures to the breakthrough figure of Kritios Boy.
Sculpture created between c. 480 BC-450 BC is considered Early Classical (sometimes called Transitional) Greek art. And Kritios Boy is dated to c. 480 BC because he exhibits the definitive characteristic that separates Archaic Greek art from Classical Greek art: contrapposto. This Italian word for counterbalance, or counter-position, is simply where one leg bears the weight and the other is relaxed – a weight shift.
This new technique developed by Greek sculptors seeking to naturalize and idealize their figures is the pivotal innovation that divides the pre-Classical and the Classical worlds. We date this change to 480 BC because of an important event in Greek history, the sack of Athens by the Persian army.
Two city-states that were dominant over the surrounding city-states in ancient Greece were Athens and Sparta. Athens was and is home to the Acropolis (‘city on a hill’), where the Parthenon is located. Much of the extant art produced by the Greeks continues to reside in this ancient city, which is still a huge tourist destination primarily because of its art and architecture. The artistic history of Athens is inextricably tied up in war.
Led by Xerxes in 480 BC, the Persians (from the north – remember, they briefly unified the Mesopotamian cultures) attacked Athens soon after the famous Battle of Thermopylae. Though most Athenians fled their beloved city before his arrival, Xerxes and his army sacked Athens anyway. The Athenians rallied and counterattacked the Persians at sea, scoring a decisive victory over them at the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Plataea in 480/479 BC.
Afterwards, the Athenians began to rebuild their city. All that was built and created after about 480 BC is therefore considered Classical rather than Archaic because of the clear-cut changes in all the arts. Overall, these changes are most evident in the sculpture that embodies the popular Greek value of idealism.
In art, this idealism is first found in the use of contrapposto, and soon after in the perfectly balanced proportions of the human form.
But the Greeks go a step further than their teachers the Egyptians by applying the canon of proportions for human figures to architecture. Usually 7:1 or 6:1, this mathematical standard provided the tools to both design columns and to measure the height, width and length of temples on the Acropolis. Thus, man is literally the measure of all things.
To clearly describe the symbiotic relationship between war and art in Classical Greece, consider this: Because the Greeks fought one another so much, they needed many weapons. They often used bronze to craft weapons during times of war, and in times of peace they melted the bronze weapons and made sculptures.
As an aside, please note that the stone (marble) ‘Greek’ sculptures we view in museums and in books today are for the most part later Roman copies of lost or destroyed Greek bronze originals. The Classical Greeks themselves didn’t create the pristine, white sculptures with which we associate them today (although the extant Archaic figures are marble.) Instead, they used the lost wax method of bronze casting to make almost all of their sculptures. Also, most ancient cultures including the Greeks painted their sculptures, even dressing them sometimes. The purity of the white, smooth marble we associate with Classical art is a modern misinterpretation.
Thus we date certain artworks by current events – usually wars. And this is why the Riace Bronzes are such an amazing find.
They are original Greek sculptures and therefore quite rare; discovered by a diver off the coast of Italy in 1972, this pair of fine-tuned warriors date to the Classical period. In fact, the Riace Bronzes and the Kritios Boy are critical to the study of Classical Greek art because they embody the burgeoning Classical moment – and the point of origin for the High Classical period in Greek culture, the Golden Age of Greece.
The High Classical period of Greek art can be summed up in these few words: ideal, rational, mathematical, symmetrical, reasonable, intellectual and balanced. Or, we could say that the Greeks sought to create a world in which these ideas and concepts pervaded every action, every thought, every moment. A tall order!
To make this point a little more relevant to our world in the 21st century, think of it this way: If it was this emphasis on the ideal that the Greeks valued, try to imagine what our ideal would be today. While we may all give lip service to multiple yet ‘appropriate’ opinions of ideal, is the Greek tendency to strive for perfection any different from our own society’s push for individual perfection?
Pick up any women’s magazine – in one glossy little booklet you can learn how to clean your whole house in less than 10 minutes while you balance your mind and body by doing yoga and eat well with a New Amazing Diet and satisfy your man in bed every day and night while making him think you are a goddess, not a floozy. Oh, and you can also learn how to have great hair, skin and shoes in the same magazine, which also features the latest recipes for entertaining. This, every month, for just pennies a day.
Men have the same expectations and demands: Work at a demanding, high-powered job, spend all your extra time working out and toning up while you interact with your partner with compassion, becoming a listener as you talk about your ‘relationship’. And then you should spend more quality time with your kids and other peoples’ kids coaching little league and looking for teachable moments while you mow your own yard, change your own oil, and plan a Secret, Romantic Getaway for just the two of you while you rake in six figures. Oh, and you are to be thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent as well…
Maybe this is a little exaggeration, and maybe it isn’t. We’re doing the same thing today that the Greeks did then. We continue to seek out how to perfect ourselves, how to reconcile reality with utopia. There is no room for error in our world, either. It’s just that our ideals are more suited to a multicultural world and the Greek ideal was developed for one demographic. But today there is still the intense pressure to be and do everything – and to do it all well.
The famous image of the discus thrower, called Diskobolos, testifies to this short but proud High Classical moment.
Created by the famous sculptor Myron in the mid-fifth century BC, the original bronze is long lost, but several Roman copies remain, albeit in marble and with unsightly supports (tree stumps) to prop up the hefty sportsman. But even the Roman copy captures the very essence of High Classical Greek art: balance, control, beauty and grace. A sound mind in a sound body.
Mathematically, the Diskobolos is an ellipse, seen through the implied line from fingertip to toe and opposite from the top of the head to the pointed toe. Using geometry to point to the ideal human physique is no accident. However, if you’ve ever thrown a discus, you’ll know that your expression in the midst of your throw is never this calm, reposed or elegant. Just watch the Olympics next time around to get a real discus thrower’s facial reality check.
Beginning in 776 B.C., the Olympic games were (and still are) comprised of events such as boxing, wrestling, javelin, shot put and archery – events that train athletes to become warriors. What are these events but practice rounds of methods to kill one’s enemies? Once again, consider this: If you are convinced that when you die, that’s it – finito – then why wouldn’t you be overly interested in ways to achieve immortality through competition or winning battles?
As we’ve referenced before, it is no coincidence that Nike chose their name and logo based on this mythology / history. Think now about the slogan that has become synonymous with Nike: “Just Do It!” Further, consider this – when my generation was coming of age in the 80’s, we were told two things with great emphasis: Just Do It and Just Say No. Well, okay – but when do we Do It and when do we Say No? The Greeks faced the same paradox of daily life. Nothing new under the sun, indeed.
It is little wonder that the High Classical Period lasted only a handful of years. No one can keep up the appearance of Perfection and maintain sanity – something has to go, and in the Greek world, it was sanity. The Greeks gradually lost interest in keeping a ‘sound mind that reflects a sound body’ and instead got much more interested in exploring the sensate realm.
Now, for a bit more Greek history to bring us from the High Classical period to the late Classical period: After the Battles of Salamis and Plataea in 480/479 BC, the Athenians eventually came under the political control of a general named Pericles, who as a teen had witnessed the sack of Athens in 480 by the Persians. He eventually gained control of the funds generated by the Delian League, an ancient forerunner of today’s United Nations. The Delian League was a coalition of Ionian city-states formed in 478 BC that paid taxes into a general fund and had a standing army to combat future attacks by non-member aggressors. But problems arose when Pericles and his supporters in Athens sweet-talked everyone else in the Delian League into moving the treasure chest to Athens from the island of Delos, to be housed in the Parthenon on the Acropolis. Pericles soon drained the rainy day fund in the rebuilding of Athens.
Sure, it became a great city – but the other members of the Delian League were very displeased, and soon thereafter there was much fighting. Then, the Athenians were plunged into the Peloponnesian War, a civil war that began in 431 BC and ended in 404 BC with Sparta victorious over a worn-out Athens. By the time the 4th century BC (400-300 BC) rolled around, the Greeks were tired of fighting – they just wanted to be left alone to live out their lives as they pleased.
While they were entertaining themselves at the theatre (Pericles at one point subsidized ticket expenses for the poor), Philip II traveled from his kingdom in Macedon (modern-day Macedonia in northern Greece) to the southern area of Greece and basically took over the Greek city-states (except Sparta) with relative ease by 338 BC. Philip was soon assassinated, and Alexander the Great, his son, took over in 336 BC.
Before we go any further with art and history, though, I think a quick explanation of how Greek thought evolved will help us to better understand how Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic ideas informed the development of the entire Western world (including America), for he was well-steeped in Greek thought.
In Greek and Roman times, philosophers maintained power over ideology, which informed the belief system of the masses, including artists. Not much has changed, for it is well known that ideas have consequences. Let’s see which Greek ideas have had consequences for us.
Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, instructed a student named Plato. Plato wrote down the words of Socrates and then further developed this system of thought we know as logic, or reason. Plato determined that there exists an Ideal (Real) World (he called these Ideals Forms) and then a Natural (Reflective) World. We humans live in the Natural World and so cannot attain perfection, or Idealism, because we are separated from it. We merely reflect it; in a short, we manifest the Ideal world but we cannot attain it or be it.
For example, we can all define Love, Beauty, Truth, Honor, etc. – but we cannot see them or actually define them in and of ourselves. These are Ideals, or, as Plato would call them, Forms, and we as imperfect humans embody them, but we Are Not Them. We manifest them but do not exemplify them in an absolute sense – we can only reflect them. Thus we are always separate from them, and Plato failed to ever find a system that would unite them.
Aristotle was the student of Plato. Aristotle disagreed with Plato by stating that we do not need to be concerned with Plato’s Ideal Forms. Instead, we need to examine the Natural World around us to find the answers to life. Or, as Plato would define it, we need to find the answer to how we can join together the Ideal Forms with the Natural world (us).
When Philip II of Macedon hired Aristotle to tutor his teenage son Alex, Hellenistic thought readily filled up the soon-to-be-king’s mind. When Alexander the Great conquered most of the Mediterranean world, he spread Hellenism (Greek thought and culture) throughout that world. So, what is Hellenism?
Basically, it’s Greek thought and culture. Philosophically, it is whatever Aristotle said it was. Aristotle said that man needs to search out, examine, name and take ownership of the Natural World, and will consequently discover the Universal World (Plato’s Forms, or Ideals, or Truth.) In short, Aristotle promoted naturalism (materialism), which laid the groundwork for the modern day scientific method of empirical study, or observation of the natural world.
In our day, we just say, “seeing is believing.”
After Alexander the Great took control of Greece and began to disseminate Hellenistic ideas throughout the Mediterranean world (and beyond as he conquered kingdoms from Africa to India), the artists in Greece experienced the same political uncertainty that all of Alexander’s subjects suffered. This uncertainty is reflected in the art of the fourth and third centuries.
When the Greeks were in the fervor of the High Classical period (after winning a major battle with Persia), artists created works in order to express the central concept of rationalism as well as the imposition of order on a society. The Greeks (especially the Athenians) literally thought of themselves as civilized and everyone else as barbaric. Victory gave them a sense of accomplishment, of having prevailed over chaos and disorder. Their art exemplifies this.
But the decline of Athenian power due to the civil war with Sparta, coupled with the eventual takeover by the Macedonians, found the Greeks disillusioned and alienated, and a shift in thinking occurred. Aristotle’s view of focusing on the natural world fed into this new outlook, and Greeks turned to introspection. Their attention drifted away from the civic-minded virtues and zeroed in on things of a more physical or sensate nature.
The famous sculptor Lysippos’ The Scraper, or Apoxyomenos, perfectly manifests what Late Classical art truly represents. Let me explain.
In ancient Greece, men did not view labor in the same terms we do today. Hard labor was left to the second-class citizens and slaves. Free men (citizens) worked up a sweat only when they competed in athletic events or went to battle. This male leisure class found refreshment, conversation, rest, and entertainment in bathhouses and in symposia (drinking parties.) Today’s equivalent might be poker night or a ballgame or … a symposium.
Of course only males could visit the gymnasium. The Greek word gymnos means ‘naked’ – and this might be a good time to mention that the Greek women were very much not a part of the “democratic process” in ancient Greece. Only Greek males of a certain class standing could vote. To participate as a woman, you would have to be an official courtesan (hetairai), a sort of ‘high-class prostitute’ who could also keep up her end of the conversation about politics, the economy, war, current events, etc. This type of female role was the only exception to the hearth-and-home model for women. Of course, there were priestesses in the different temples, but that was very similar to courtesan life for a woman because it was so politically charged and rife with duties of a sexual nature.
Men found both cleanliness and entertainment in the gymnasiums of old. Some courtesans were always in attendance but this was essentially a male world. Men went there to bathe, yes. But they also attended to seek entertainment in relations with other men. This might be a good place to mention that homosexuality in Greece was considered not only normal but often preferred over heterosexual relations, with the possible exception of Sparta.
The Apoxyomenos from about 330 BC represents a typical young man about to enter a gymnasium. He holds a strigil, which is a type of cleaning tool that was offered to men as they entered the baths. It was used to scrape dirt and oil and blood and what not off one’s body so as to not muddy the bath water. Apoxyomenos looks similar to the High Classical sculptures with his toned, muscular body, but if you examine this Roman copy closely you’ll see differences.
He is not about to go to battle, nor is he readying to run a race or compete in an athletic game. He’s getting ready to take a bath. Relax. Hang out with the guys. Maybe take a little romp in the locker room. There is nothing noble or courageous about this behavior – it’s mundane, frivolous, self-serving. This man is quite unlike the Riace Bronzes or the Diskobolos, warriors of High Classical Greece who represent the ideal Classical balance of mind and body in sync. Remember, ‘sound mind, sound body’ means to always be in control of one’s physical and mental bearings. This is what the ideal moment in Greek art is all about.
But in the Late Classical period, we find that the Greeks are tired of idealism, and they are essentially letting down their guard. They are more interested in the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides, and they want to be left alone to pursue their own agendas. The goals of the day become personal, more individual. They seek to sate physical and sensual desires; they seek to gratify Self. No longer are the Greeks interested in living out the values of the High Classical period – duty to country (or city-state, as it were), control of mind and body, and self-discipline, which are all rational pursuits of the mind, the intellect.
Instead, Greeks are much more interested in, well, in being entertained. They wish to cease fighting because they don’t really care who’s in charge just as long as they can make their 10 o’clock bathhouse appointment. This is the collective mentality of Greek culture in the fourth century. And this mentality contributed to the demise of the Greek Classical period, for without a sense of civics, a city-state – or a nation – cannot stand.
This tendency to personalize, to individuate, is common to the art of Lysippos and the other 4th century artists, who rejected stability and balance in sculpture. They preferred their art to reflect the new spirit of action, of movement, of individuality, which reaches its peak in Hellenistic and Roman art. The Apoxyomenos cares nothing for collecting battle scars. He instead collects experiences of an emotional and sensate nature. But if he relishes this intensity of feelings, of emotions, then Hellenistic art (which is also early Roman art) embodies this intensely sensual, emotional perspective.
For a perfect manifestation of Hellenistic art, let’s look at the Laocoon. Here is a sculpture of not just one ideal man, but an idealized man and his two idealized sons. Stylistically, they are really no different than the sculptures of the Classical period. It is the dramatic presentation of the piece that distinguishes it from the Classical works.
The story, from the Greek-Trojan war, is told in Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid. Many of you will be familiar with the story if you’ve seen the recent Hollywood production, Troy. In this lecture we’ve already met the main cast of characters.
In short, the Greeks attacked Troy (in modern-day Turkey) and waged a ten-year battle to recover Helen, the wife of Menelaus – she of the face that launched a thousand ships – who left her husband, Menelaus, for a Trojan prince named Paris.
In this scene, as it were, the Trojan priest Laocoon has warned the Trojans not to accept the infamous Greek peace offering, the gift of a wooden horse to honor their gods. Weary after about a decade of war, the Trojans do not listen to Laocoon, who has been telling them to not look the gift horse in the mouth: “…even when Greeks bring gifts I fear them.”
To their doom, they accept the Greek horse. They really should have looked in the horse’s mouth because therein hid Odysseus and his warriors. The hidden soldiers crept out and unlocked the gates for their fellow troops while the Trojans celebrated the ‘peace offering’ and assumed end of war with much drinking and merriment. We can only imagine the ensuing carnage.
In any case, before the Greeks surprised the celebratory Trojans, the gods who supported the Greeks in this war (Poseidon and Athena) sent sea serpents to strangle Laocoon just in case someone (like the King) did begin to listen to his alarm. This sculpture captures the moment when the two sea serpents attack and kill Laocoon and his two sons.
The Laocoon embodies raw artistic power by conveying an entire range of emotional, physical and spiritual ideas. A father helplessly watches his own children succumb to horrible, excruciating and humiliating deaths. Dad himself undergoes the same violent demise. He has sacrificed his entire life serving his gods, his king, his city, his country – and what does he get for it? Death. Humiliation. Not a moving and somber eulogy by his trusted king, but a shameful and torturous death by super-sized snakes.
Here is a figure of religious authority, held to a higher standard, who continues to warn his beloved country even as he dies. Yet no one believes him. He dies unrewarded, unacknowledged, derided, a total failure. The emotional response is visceral for us now, just as it was then. This is Hellenistic art. And the Romans absolutely loved it.
 Many artists today manipulate religious iconography in order to lend weight and a sense of seriousness and authenticity to their individual views, disseminated through their work(s), whether they believe that perspective or not. In America, this religious iconography is often rooted in Christianity.
 There is some question as to the extent of this destruction by the Persians; it has been suggested that the fleeing Athenians may have themselves to share in the blame.
 There are numerous and fantastic descriptions of this method of creating bronze sculptures in Classical Greece; for further details, I recommend doing an Internet search of the term or looking in one of the books listed in the Bibliography at the end of this book. In short, bronze sculpture using the lost-wax process is fairly simple: 1) Create basic shape with wooden pieces; 2) build up clay over wooden pieces and shape sculpture exactly as desired, in one piece; 3) cover entire clay figure with layer of wax – 1 to 1 ½ inch; 4) cover with another clay mold; 5) heat partially dried clay to dissolve wax (hence, lost-wax); 6) pour molten bronze (alloy of tin and copper) into empty shell left by lost wax; 7) chip away outer layer of clay mold; 8) voila! Add details and paint and even weapons, etc. to create ideal, life-like Classical Greek sculpture.