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                        The Greeks and Romans

                                                           by Alex Brown



1.0  INTRODUCTION: The Origins of the Greek People


In search of new farming land, tribes from Siberia in central Asia began to settle in the Greek peninsula approximately 6000 BC. By the year 1000 BC, after several such waves of immigration, a recognizable and unified culture began to emerge on the Greek mainland. By the year 500 BC that culture had reach a classical perfection which would influence many other societies throughout history. Greek art and culture may be said to represent the true beginnings of Western civilization.


Greek civilization can be divided into five definite periods:


        1.   Bronze Age : The Minoan Period (3000 BC- 1150BC) :


The Minoans were non-Greeks who lived on the island of Crete and who produced a highly developed society influenced by the Egyptians and the Phoenicians.


        2.   Bronze Age : The Mycenaen Period  (1650 BC- 1000BC):


Being dominant in mainland Greece, the Mycenaeans soon took over the Minoan society. They established cities throughout Greece, one of which was the city of Athens.


Little is known of these people and they were associated with myths and legends, rather than historical predecessors, in the works of the poet Homer (9 BC). This is the period of the Trojan Wars. It may be due to commercial reasons that the Mycenaens attacked Troy (1200 BC).


        3.   Iron/ Dark Age : The Doric People (1000 BC- 800 BC) :


By massive migration toward the Southern part, the Dorian-speaking Greeks, in turn, destroyed the Mycenaen civilization and absorbed its art and culture.


Because most of the objects were buried with the dead, records on the lives of these communities are limited. Before 800 BC, the style of the period is geometric with severe, abstract patterns, and it is after 800 BC onward that human figures start to appear.


After a long period of time, this mixture of cultures resulted in the establishment of a sophisticated culture on the Greek mainland and its surrounding areas. It was a society based on a number of important cities the most influential of which was the city of Athens.


2.0  THE CLASSICAL AGE : (500BC-300BC)


By 800 BC, Greek culture had entered a new phase and it reached its zenith by 500 BC. Until this time Greek cities had been ruled by monarchs. In 510 BC, the citizens of Athens overthrew their monarch and declared a popular democracy. From this point on there was a rapid development of art, science and philosophy.  Athens became the most influential city on the Greek mainland but remained in fierce competition with the military dictatorship of Sparta.


Temporarily these two very different cities united to defend Greece against the Persian Empire. In two separate wars, the Athenians and the Spartans defeated the Persians. With the removal of the Persian threat, Athens produced the most brilliant artistic movements of the ancient world. Every art flourished and was developed to the highest levels of technical and artistic skill.


Athens was rebuilt with the most perfect examples of architecture and sculpture still recognised today as masterpieces. Eventually, Athens and Sparta went to war and Athens was defeated and forced to surrender in 404BC. It went into a period of political decline although it remained the centre of artistic excellence.


2.1     The Character of Classical Greek Art


The artistic characteristics of the period are governed by the classical belief in balance, harmony and proportion.


1.       Humanistic. Complex. Realistic..

2.       Technically superb.

3.       Non-geometrical, free, relaxed and yet supremely elegant and harmonious.

4.       Ideal and dynamic in 3-dimensions


Three principal architectural styles:


1.      Doric order (widespread by the 600 BC)

          - austere/ majestic

2.      Ionic order (widespread by 500 BC)

          - delicate : surface treatment is as important to structural design

3.      Corinthian order

         - natural foliage : acanthus leaves


2.2 Greek Philosophers


By 600 BC, Greek thinkers began to cast doubts on the traditional religion ideas of Homer and his depiction of gods in human forms. They questioned the formation of the physical world and the nature of it.


1.      Thales of Miletus, “Father of Philosophy”, (585 BC)

         He believed that nature was composed of water.

2.      Empedocles, (493 BC)

         He argued that nature consisted of four elements: fire, air, earth and water.

3.      Pythagoras, (600 BC)

         He taught that mathematical relationships gave the basic principle of the  universe.

4.      Socrates, (469 BC)

         His fame rested on his discussions on human behaviour and ethics.

5.      Plato, (428 BC)

         His belief in the freeing of soul from the body and the existance of fundamental Forms   which were the source of all             reality

6.      Aristotle, (384 BC)

         He expounded on various forms of government.




The continual wars between Greek cities provided an opportunity for the growing military power of the northern kingdom of Macedon to intervene in Greek politics. Macedonia eventually conquered Athens and the other Greek cities and under Philip of Macedonia Greece was united. In 336 BC, Philip was assassinated and his son, ALEXANDER THE GREAT  took over.


Tutored by Aristotle himself, Alexander was a military genius who conquered Persia and the Middle East including Egypt and Northern India. His military successes certainly allowed him to Hellenise, or spread the Greek culture throughout his empire. At the same time, Greek culture became influenced by Eastern cultures that he had conquered, and Alexandria, with its strategic location, is where the cultural exchange took place.


The simplicity of the Classical age gave way to the more theatrical and sensuous character of the art of the East. Greek art (Hellenistic) became more dramatic and sentimental with constant themes of tragedy and death.


3.1      The Character of Hellenistic Art


Throughout the period, the human form is used to express the concept of ideal beauty.


1.       Technically brilliant and complex.

2.       Multiple figures in dramatic poses.

3.      Theatrical in intention, full of illusion and exaggeration.

4.      Spiralling, 3-dimensional organization of forms.

5.      Heroic, tragic themes.


3.2 Hellenistic Science and Religion


         Astronomers - Aristarchus & Hipparchus                                     

         Mathematician - Ptolemy &  Archimedes


         Philosophies:   School of  Stoicism, School of Epicureanism, School of Cynicism 


3.3    The End of  Greek Power 


With Alexander's death in the year 323BC Greek power in the Mediterranean came to an end. His empire broke up into fragments, forming new states such as Eygpt, Pergamum, Macedon and the kingdom of the Selucids.




                                 4.0  THE ROMANS


Rome was a small country town when the Etruscan people come to it from central Italy approximately 616 BC. They traded widely with other societies in the Mediterranean sea: the Egyptians, the Carthaginians and the Greeks. In 510 BC, these people were then driven out of the city by the Romans but awarded Roman citizenship later in 100 BC.


The Romans were basically practical and realistic people good at administration, law, engineering and warfare. Unlike the Greeks who saw themselves and their art as heroic and ideal, the Romans created a public art suited to the needs of a great empire. When they conquered Greece and saw the quality of the work produced there, they took it as their own, combined it with their Etruscan heritage to produce their own distinct style.


Roman history can basically be divided into 2 main phases:


1,      The Republican Period    509BC -  14AD


2.      The Empire.                     14AD  -  476AD


 4.1    The Republican Period


The expulsion of the monarchic Estruscan rulers in 509BC marks the beginning of Republic Rome. The Romans set up a form of democracy based on a Senate ('parliament') which governed Rome till the beginning of the Empire in AD14. This is the Republican period.


In the West,  Rome was in competition with the North African city of Carthage for trade routes and dominance of the Mediterranean. After three wars with the Carthaginians, the Romans totally destroyed the city of Carthage.


By approximately 300BC and the death of Alexander the Great, the Romans had the opportunity to dominate the whole of the Mediterranean. Rome under the Republic conquered Spain, parts of North Africa and in 58BC Julius Caesar conquered the whole of Gaul (France). With this success the leading figures in the Roman Republic began to fight amongst themselves. After a series of civil wars, Julius Caesar became Dictator of Rome in 46 BC.


4.2     Art in the Republican Period


The Romans looted many works of art from the territories which they had conquered and much of this work was Greek. This vast influx of Greek treasures finally established Greek art as the major force in Roman culture.


The demand for Greek works of art among the Roman upper classes of the last century BC was enormous; it was met by an influx of artists from all over the Hellenistic Greek world.


The artistic style that the Greeks brought was the dramatic and theatrical Hellenistic style current during the time of Alexander the Great. This suited the Roman taste for more expressive, dramatic and individualistic forms and matched the Roman  need for grandeur of image especially during the Empire.


The Romans of the earlier Republican period saw themselves as disciplined, severe and realistic people who could not accept the more ideal and `romantic' aspects of Classical Greek culture. They required their art to be `tougher' and more restrained and realistic. 


4.3     Characteristics of Roman Republican Art


Republican art may be summarised as follows:


1.      Basically Greek art forms, especially in architecture.

2.      In Roman public art - the use of Hellenistic drama and highly ornamented/decorated forms.

3.      The Roman tradition of realistic portraiture (true likeness) for individual patrons.

4.      Roman preference for direct, factual and straightforward representation of  images and historical scenes. 


4.4    Literature : The Golden Period


Roman poets:


​1.      Ennius Plautus, (239 - 169 BC)

         Based his Annals, an epic chronicle of Rome, on Greek tragedies.

2.      Marcus Tullius Cicero, (106 BC)

         Active in political and philosophical works

3.      Publius Vergilius Maro, Vergil, (70 BC)

         Inspired by Homer, his epic, Aeneid, gives the account o the founding of ome.     


Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC. His godson, Octavian and the general Mark Anthony destroyed the forces of the assassins. Later, Mark Anthony joined with the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, and attempted to take over the whole empire but their forces were destroyed at the naval battle of Actium in 31BC.


Octavian - now called AUGUSTUS CAESAR - became the sole ruler of the Roman world. In AD14 the Roman senate proclaimed him Emperor.


Under Augustus and the later Emperors the Roman Empire was extended to most of the Western world. Roman law, military control, roads, administration, and language (Latin)  were imposed on all parts of the Empire and so too was Greek art.  Under the Empire the Roman state became the main patron of the arts, building monumental buildings such as palaces and temples and even new towns in Roman colonies. In this sense art became an instrument of  State Propaganda to reinforce the impression of peace and prosperity.


4.6    Characteristics of the Art of the Empire


The private art of wealthy individuals retained the simplicity and severity of Republican and Classical Greek models.


Private art retained the principle of true likeness in portraiture. Even the Emperors accepted this tradition. 


Very detailed work combining Greek technical skill and Roman historical descriptions of military victories and legends.


In the late Roman Empire a mass of decorative detail, the use of richer, multicolour/ materials: mosaics and different kinds and colours of marble smothered the clear shapes of the Greek-inspired architecture.


Generally, sculpture in Rome involved copying or reworking of Greek models. Roman historical figures would be portrayed in the style of Greek heros or gods for Political reasons. (Eg. the Emperor Claudius as Jupiter or the Emperor Commodus as Hercules).


Roman painting reached a very high level of skill under the Empire, surpassing the Greeks in its colouring and realism and incorporating images of the natural world.


In architecture the Romans invented and used concrete to produce major public buildings such as public baths, temples and commercial buildings on a gigantic scale. The essential relationship between Late Roman Imperial art, architecture and Greek art is of a powerful and practical Roman form underlies a decorative surface of Greek detail.




In AD313 the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In AD324 he built a new Roman capital city called Constantinople in Asia Minor (Turkey) and moved the Imperial court there. This decisively changed the nature of the Roman Empire and further distanced Roman art from its Classical Greek sources.


In AD476 the Roman Empire in the West collapsed with the invasion of Rome by the Gothic tribes from Germany. The Roman Empire in the East centred on Constantinople continued to exist for another thousand years.





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