Lecture: Ancient Greece and Hellenistic Empire


Ancient Greece

Greek geography

Whether you believe in geographic determinism or not, there is no doubt that ancient Greek people and culture were influenced by geography. The Peloponnesian peninsula and its surrounding islands contain soil that is sandy, rocky, and doesn't hold water well. This meant that the people there raised plants and animals that thrived in those conditions: goats, sheep, olive trees, and grapes. Because of the rocky terrain, settlements formed in isolation from each other. Historians think that these conditions cause competition between settlements whose people didn't know each other well.

The Minoans

Ancient Greek civilization did not begin on the mainland, but rather on the island of Crete. We know much about the Minoan civilization (so called from the 19th century in reference to King Minos, legendary king of Crete) from archaeological remains, particularly the Palace at Knossos. The Palace was built between 1700 and 1400 BC, in a configuration so complex it has been considered the origin of the myth of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. A reconstruction:


The complex hallways may have been designed to confuse visitors and possible invaders. Certainly ancient Crete had no other fortifications, suggesting that they lived at peace with their neighbors in a network of extensive trade. Among the indications of complex culture are images of men and women engaged in dance, celebrations, and activities related to the bull, which was likely an animal of religious worship.

Paintings on the walls of Knossos indicate that a sporting event (which I call "bull jumping") was dangerous but popular for both men and women (men are painted in red, women in white). This is assumed to be an action cartoon of how the sport was done:

Fresco of bull jumping

The many legends of ancient Crete were passed down to us through the stories of Homer, much later. The Minoan civilization disappeared. Around 1500 BC, the volcano known as Thera (or Santorini) seems to have erupted, although historians differ on its possible effects.

The Mycenaeans

Bronze age Greece mapThe civilization which developed on the mainland was not as peaceful. The designation "Myceanaean" has been given to the era of ancient Greek history from about 1600-1100 BC.

The warlike, piratical Myceaneans were the source of the Greek pantheon of gods and the traditional origin of the warriors of Sparta. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenean archaeological remains feature massive fortifications. The goods found in graves were of extraordinary wealth and workmanship, including this famous "mask of Agamemnon" found by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s:

Mask of Agamemnon

Since it was made around 1500 BC, it was likely before the time of King Agamemnon, a legendary figure who participated in the Trojan War (traditionally dated 1194–1184 BC) and immortalized by Homer in The Iliad.


The ancient Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey (both dated around the 8th century BC) are attributed to the epic poet Homer. Because we don't know exactly when he lived, or when anything was written down, it is best for historians to refer to the stories themselves as comprising the Greeks' understanding of their own history and culture. Clearly the epics derive from a long oral tradition, and thus the written versions are not as important as the narratives contained therein. They were composed, when written, into complex and beautiful hexameter verse.

The Iliad is set during the Trojan War and tells the story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans (Troy was on the coast of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey). The Odyssey, written later, centers on the story of Odysseus (called Ulysses by the Romans) and his journey home after the fall of Troy. Like all narratives later referrred to as "epic", themes such as heroism, loyalty and honor are key to both stories. The Odyssey also provides a model, taken up by many later narratives, of a young man becoming a full person through the challenges encountered on a journey (you can see this theme in many stories, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Iron Man). Because the focus of both stories is on the individuals and their decisions, these epic works can be seen as harbingers of the Greek aspect of individualism, which we do not see in the narratives of ancient Mespotamia or Egypt.

 Click here to open document in new window

Development of the Polis

By the 5th century BC (the Golden Age) several settlements had developed politically, in many cases beginning as monarchies (Crete, Mycenae and Troy were all monarchies). Monarchy means "rule by the one" in Greek (mono=one, archy=rule). There seems to be a pattern of political development. A king would be challenged by nobles and warriors, who would take over, creating an oligarchy (rule by the few). When one person leads the people in revolt against the oligarchy, he is considered a tyrant when he becomes sole ruler, but unlike a monarch his source of support is the will of the people (tyranny). When the people take down a tyrant and rule themselves, it is considered democracy (demos=people, cracy=form of government).

Many city-states developed in Greece, and each polis (city-state) went through several forms government, most in this pattern, before the 5th century. We will focus on two for contrast: Sparta and Athens.

Lakonian warriorSparta considered itself the inheritor of ancient Mycenae. Geographically, the Spartans resided in the heart of the Peloponese on mainland Greece, in an area where farming was difficult. By 650 BC, Sparta was a major military power, their primary source of labor being the helots. Helots were serfs, agricultural laborers, who had originally been Messenians captured in war. True Spartans engaged almost exclusively in war. Children born deformed were left out to die, and sons were sent to the barracks at the age of 7 to be raised in the military. Once an adult, a young man was expected to find a woman and get married, but had to escape from the barracks to do so. Upon retirement, Spartan males were expected to become elders and continue serving the state as advisors in the government. Spartan women were expected to be physically and mentally strong, able to raise strong children and manage estates. At left you can see a warrior from the 6th century, painted on a vase by one of the great Spartan artists.

Athens considered itself the inheritor of the Ionians, who were a more peaceful, intellectual people in legendary times. Athens' geographic location made sea trade, and a sea-based life, natural. Athens created a great trading empire after 900 BC, engaging in military (primarily naval) exploits in order to expand its control over trade in the Aegean. Athens went through the political stages in order, and democracy emerged under the leader Cleisthenes in 508 BC. In assisting the Ionian colonies along the coast of Anatolia, Athens came up against the great Persian Empire.

The Greco-Persian Wars featured both Athens and Sparta fighting the Persians from 499-449 BC. The facts of this war can be read anywhere, but when it was over Athens experience the Golden Age in which culture developed in ways that were passed down to modern Western civilization. This will be our focus.

The Golden Age of Athens

Modern Americans love the golden age because it features democracy, but the democracy of ancient Greece was not like ours. Only adult, male, free citizens could vote. Economically, almost all poleis relied on slave labor, allowing the upper classes to engage in other pursuits. In Athens, this group comprised about 6,000 men. They met in the agora (marketplace) to discuss and vote on issues. This was direct democracy, without named or elected representatives -- a consensus was needed for action. 6,000 men arguing an issue was impossible. What happened was that leaders would emerge from within the group, men who could sway the crowd with their oratory and arguments.

Since most elite young men, and their families, sought political power, it became essential for them to learn to speak well in public. Education of this class of men took place with private tutors paid for by their families, so teachers who specialized in rhetoric were valuable. Such "Sophists", far from emphasizing the development of a full education, instead focused on argumentation and the ability to convince others. One teacher, Socrates, objected to this approach as being amoral. Ethics were not taught with these methods, and students were not developing in terms of morality or character, only political influence. Socrates saw this as a threat to the wisdom of his civilization. He began teaching young men using a method designed to encouraged moral and ethical examination of ones own ideas. In other words, he emphasized critical thinking!

Unfortunately, at the time he was doing this there was conflict with Sparta, and the government of Athens saw Socrates as a threat to the unity they needed to face a possible war. Afraid that Socrates was encouraging individual morality (including the right to say no to a military draft), they accused him of impiety and corruption of the young. Because Socrates believed in universal morality, and the right of the state to make its own laws, he did not try to escape his punishment, but took poison rather than face execution. His student Plato, however, never forgave the government of Athens and wrote later about the wisdom of his teacher and the need for a republic where leaders of government were philosophers rather than those who sought power.

 Click here to open document in new window

Philosophy thus became a hallmark of ancient Athens, where people argued ethics, politics and power. They also studied nature, sponsoring "natural philosophers" (we would call them scientists) who would make extraordinary discoveries later during the 3rd century BC, the Hellenistic era.

Man and boy - attic potteryBoth Socrates and the Sophists were part of the educational system of the ancient west. The educational system that provided the foundation for learning in 5th century Athens was based on a male-focused system. Formal education took place between a boy and his tutor. This relationship was special -- the tutor taught the boy not only academic subjects but about life itself, including sex. The free, elite Greek male life cycle was to be copied in later times. Sexuality was not a separate subject of study, nor something to hide. As boys, Greek men were expected to learn sexually from their tutors. As young men, they were expected to date women, get married and become fathers. As older men, they were expected to tutor boys. Although ancient Greeks did not really have a concept of "homosexuality" or "heterosexuality", they considered the same-sex relationship normal in boyhood and old age, and the male-female exclusive relationship normal in mid-life. Anyone deviating in either direction (such as an old man still chasing women, or a 25-year-old continuing with gay relationships) was considered abnormal. You can see a man and boy on this Attic pottery drinking cup from the 6th c. BC.

Some women in elite families also developed educational systems, although many women were expected to dominate in the domestic sphere. Educated women ran schools and academies for other women. The great teacher and poet Sappho, who founded a school on the island of Lesbos, fell in love with some of her female students and thus provided us with terms like "lesbian" and "Sapphic love". Her poetry, unfortunately, exists now in only bits and pieces, but we have enough to read her "lyric" style, which was focused on personal feelings and very different from Homeric-style "epic" poetry.

 Click here to open document in new window

Other women became important politically. Ancient Athens boasted women known as courtesans, who provided men with sexual pleasure but were also educated. They were not ordinary prostitutes or street-walkers, but were literate and moved within society. Although frowned upon by wealthy and "respectable" Athenian wives, who were usually escorted everywhere by a companion or slave, they enjoyed great freedom. Because they catered to powerful men, they could exert significant influence. The most famous example is Aspasia, courtesan to Pericles, who may even have written some of his great speeches for him.

Greek theatre

In addition to poetry, rhetoric, and science, Golden Age Athens was known for theatre. "Tragedies" were performed stories based on a high-ranking member of society (such as a king or queen) meeting his/her downfall through hubris, or excessive pride. In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, for example, the king Oedipus tries to avoid the fate told to him by an oracle: that he will kill his father and marry his mother. His own hubris encourages him to believe he can avoid this fate, but it happens anyway by accident. His humiliation and downfall lead him to blind himself in remorse at the end of the play, a man defeated by his own pride.

"Comedies" were more contemporary, sort of like an Athenian version of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Because they often feature contemporary jokes, they are harder to understand in our day than the tragedies. However, some still feature universal themes. Comedies had to be about ordinary people, who are usually shown outsmarting their "betters". In Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the wives of soldiers go on strike, refusing sex to their men until they stop engaging in war. It is possible to see this play as pro-war (encouraging men to ignore their wives and get going) or anti-war, but either way one can see the Athenian concern with war, particularly with the rise of Sparta.

 Click here to open document in new window

Athena replica

Greek art

Art and architecture were particularly good at showing the Greek emphasis on balance and moderation, and again Athenian artists were at the forefront. The Parthenon, completed in 438 BC, clearly demonstrated Athenian priorities, and by extension ancient Greek values. The building is highly symmetrical and perfectly proportioned. In everything, Greeks valued moderation and rationality. Mathematicians such as Pythagorus practiced philosophy during this time.

Inside the Parthenon, there was a huge 40-foot statue of Athena, painted and gilded. In fact, the vision we have of Greek art and architecture as being all white marble is completely wrong. Athenians painted and gilded much of their art. In 1990, artists in Nashville, Tennessee, created a modern replica of the statue of Athena, but it was plain white until 2002, when they gilded it to make it appear as it would have in ancient Athens. It's shown here (right) with its sculptor, Alan LeQuire.

Getty kouros<- My favorite Greek statue (left), showing the free-standing, positive style that expresses Greek pride and craftsmanship, may be a fake. This is the Getty Kouros, purchased by the Getty Museum (you can go see it in LA). If it's real it's dated about 530 BC, before the Golden Age, but it clearly represents not only the balance and moderation that are part of ancient Greek culture, but the positive image of the male body.

The male figure was a significat cultural icon in ancient Greece, and the male body the ultimate symbol of beauty. Women were beautiful too, but statues of them tend to be clothed. The moment in a male's life when he became a man was of fascination to ancient Greeks, and may be a reflection of what became the universal story of boy-becoming-man featured in epics from Homer to the present.

The Golden Age ended with the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. I often joke that democracy is not an efficient way to run a government, especially when you're under attack. The two great powers of the Aegean had almost come to blows over rebellions in their colonies and among their separate allies. Athenian trade sanctions led to resistance and ultimately war. Although through much of the war Sparta won on land and Athens won at sea, a number of circumstances led to an Athenian naval defeat, and Sparta starved out Athens and won the war. Democracy was suspended, and although Athens survived, the Golden Age was over. Its narrative would be revived by Alexander the Great.

Here is a half hour about Greek art, beginning with its significance to us and concluding with some examples of the style from the Hellenistic Era (our topic next week). Video study guide is here - print and fill it out as you watch.

Lessons of History

1. It may be more important how cultures interpret their origins in narrative than the actual facts of those origins. In this sense, peoples develop their own history over time.

2. The Golden Age of Greece features aspect with which we are still very familiar (such as epics, tragedy and poetry) and others which don't fit with our current conceptions (the male sexual life cycle).

3. Ancient Greeks valued the male form, balance and moderation, and philosophical endeavors.


The Hellenistic World

You should see a button for audio below. If you do not, please use another browser. The audio is me reading the lecture. You will need to read the documents from this page.

Philip of Macedon

Alexander the Great was the son of Philip of Macedon, a king who wanted to reunify ancient Greece and then defeat the Persians as punishment for annexing Greece. He achieved the first part, but was assassinated before he could achieve the second. His son went on to create this:

Alexander's Empire


Yes, it's big. It's so big it didn't really fit on the page, and now defines its space. It's the empire of Alexander the Great.

As a young man, Alexander had been tutored by Aristotle. Aristotle, having been tutored by Plato, was therefore very familiar with the Golden Age of Greece in terms of its science, philosophy, history and culture. Alexander set out to complete his father's plans to conquer much of the Aegean, and headed eastward to ultimately defeat Persia. He was 20 when he became king, and conquered all the way to the Indus River (now Pakistan). His goal of conquering the known world ended when his army mutinied, wanting to go home.

Alexander cemented control over the large area he conquered by marrying his generals off to local queens and princesses, often by force. He died at age 32, probably from an infection caused by an old battle wound. After his death, his generals divided the huge empire into what became four areas: the Antigonid dynasty (Macedon and Greece), the Ptolemaic dynasty (Egypt), the Seleucid dynasty (Mesopotamia and Syria) and the Attalid dynasty (Anatolia). The Ptolemaic dynasty became the new pharoahs of Egypt, giving rise to generations of Hellenistic pharoahs down to Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies.

Alexander's Empire

Although founded on military conquest, Alexander's Empire was short-lived as a political entity. What's more significant is the cultural expansion of Greek ideals and knowledge caused by his journeys and takeover of other peoples. Alexander's ambitions had focused on the founding and revitalization of cities as centers of administration and power. Humility is not a Greek virtue, and Alexander named over 20 cities after himself, including the most famous: Alexandria in Egypt. Alexandria became home to a great library in the 3rd century BC, and a center of learning. The spread of Greek culture not only served to unify a highly diverse empire, but combined with local knowledge to create a highly dynamic environment for society and intellectual endeavors.

Cosmopolitanism (cosmos = universe, politan = polis) is thus a hallmark of the Hellenistic Era, as historians call it. Hellas was the original Greek name for Greece itself, so Hellenistic implies that the empire was Greek-like, or in imitation of Greece. Certainly many who promoted Greek culture were somewhat romantic in their view of the Golden Age, and wanted to revive it and expand it. Because we are talking about a huge geographic area, with many cultures and languages, it is difficult to make too many definite statements of what life was like. However, as centers of trade, administration and learning, the cities of the Hellenistic world show us major changes in how people related to the world around them.

Unlike villages, where everyone knows everyone and social mobility is somewhat static, cities are always changing. They are crowded, and people come there from everywhere to live and work. Leaving their rural homes and small towns means that people could feel alienated or isolated in a city, and the philosophies of the time expanded on Hellenic (Golden Age) ideas to incorporate personal, individual development. While many people attribute modern Western individualism to Golden Age Athens, that society was actually rather closed and based on kinship clans, even during the time of democracy. In fact, much of our attitudes about personal development (or personal anything, really) derive instead from Hellenistic times. So do many of our attitudes about culture, society and art.

Roles of women

Aphrodite IsisIn Hellenic Greece, at least in cities, women were protected and confined to a private role, either as housemaid or house mistress, with a few notable exceptions. But in the Hellenistic cities, private life was appreciated as much as public life, part of the appreciation of the personal and individual. Private life itself was a topic of conversation and debate.

Women led more public lives and were appreciated in various roles. There are records of female magistrates, poets, scholars, and pristesses, and evidence of literacy and education for females. In marriage contracts, the wife's privileges are emphasized as much as the husband's. As an example of the openness of female life, in a scene from a play by Herodas, two women discuss the characteristics of a dildo one of them has purchased. And, as in ancient Egypt, women continued to control their own property after marriage.

Although there was no unifying religion across the Hellenistic empire, one goddess was represented everywhere. She was called Aphrodite in Greece and Isis in Egypt. Often show naked, she was considered the Creator in many hymns, and in some places her devotion was almost monotheistic. An example of a hymn to her from this time, told from her viewpoint:

I gave and ordained laws for all men and women, which no one is able to change. I am the eldest daughter of Kronos. I am the wife and sister of King Osiris. I am She who findeth fruit for men and women I am the Mother of King Horus. I am She that riseth in the Dog Star. I am she that is called goddess by women. For me was the city of Bubastis built. I divided the earth from the heavens. I showed the paths of the stars. I ordered the course of the sun and moon. I devised business in the sea. I made strong the right. I brought together man and woman. I appointed women to bring their infants to birth in the tenth lunar month. I ordained that parents should be loved by children. I laid punishment upon those disposed without natural affection towards their parents. I made with my brother Osiris an end to the eating of human flesh. I revealed mysteries unto men. I taught men and women to honor the images of the gods. I consecrated the precincts of the gods. I broke down the governments of tyrants. I made an end to murders. I compelled women to be loved by men. I made the right to be stronger than gold and silver. I ordained that the true should be thought good. I devised marriage contracts. I assigned to Greeks and to barbarians their languages. I made the beautiful and the shameful to be distinguished by nature. I ordained that nothing should be more feared than an oath. I have delivered the plotter of evil against other men into the hands of the one he plotted against. I established penalties for those who practice injustice. I decree mercy to suppliants. I protect and honor righteous guards. With me the right prevails.
I am the Queen of rivers and winds and sea. No one is held in honor without my knowing it. I am Queen of War. I am Queen of the Thunderbolt. I stir up the sea and I calm it once again. I am in the rays of the sun. Whatever I please, this too shall come to an end. With me everything is reasonable. I set free those in bonds. I am the Queen of seamanship. I make the navigable unnavigable when it pleases me. I create walls for cities. I am called the Lawgiver. I brought up islands out of the depths into the light. I am Lord of Rainstorms.

Women as queens (and there were many Hellenistic queens, Cleopatra among them) and women as goddesses do not necessarily imply that women were respected in daily life, but in the Hellenistic cities this seemed to be more the case than in previous eras.

Hellenistic Philosophy

There were many schools of Hellenistic philosophy, but I'm going to focus on just three.

Cynicism was based on the rejection of materialism (including wealth and fame) in favor of the natural. The most famous Cynic was probably Diogenes. Stories about him give you an idea of the Cynics' perspective.

 Click here to open document in new window

Nowadays, we use the word cynicism to mean a kind of skepticism that is borne of experience, but may be a bit too pessimistic. That tone may come from Diogenes.


With their appreciation of food and drink, Epicureans are these days assumed to have been hedonists, enjoying life to excess. But that was not the idea. Epicureans promoted simplicity and freedom from pain (eating and drinking too much would cause pain, right?). Pleasure was seen as an ethical good, something that humans were meant to pursue. These days, an epicure (or reader of Epicurean magazine) is one who enjoys the best of food, wine, and life's benefits. At the time, this philosophy was seen as the opposite of....


Stoics believed that the "real" world was an illusion, a layer between the individual soul and the spiritual reality of the cosmos. Emotions were seen as destructive and useless, since they were based on things that had no meaning. Stoics emphasized self-control and strength in the face of life's varying conditions. During Roman times, Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about philosophy in the context of duty and service to Rome. Christians engaged the techniques of Stoicism in response to Roman persecution (which made them lousy entertainment when thrown to the lions -- they just knelt and prayed to move on to their eternal life).

Hellenistic Judaism

One of the biggest threats to Judaism came about during the Hellenistic Era. The spread of Jews throughout the empire (known as diaspora, or scattering) led to encounters with many different religions, cultures, and languages. You may recall that the greatest strength of Judaism was cohesion without a country, the ability to be a Jew regardless of the dominant culture. The dominant elite culture in much of the Hellenistic world was Greek, or at the elite levels was at least based on Greek education, language, and culture. Much of the philosophical and intellectual exploration going on at the time undermined a monotheistic system dedicated to the ethics of God. There emerged in this environment Hellenized Jews, who combined their Jewish religion with Greek learning and culture. This was opposed by traditionalists, who believed that Greek ways tainted Judaism and pulled Jews away from their faith.

Jerusalem, the major Jewish center, had been in the Ptolemaic empire after the death of Alexander, but had been won by the Seleucid Empire in a war in 200 BC. The Jews in the city were promised the continued right to worship at the Temple. When a pro-Ptolemaic faction gained enough power to push out a group of Hellenized Jews known as the Tobians, the Tobians contacted the new Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus IV, and asked him to take Jerusalem back. For whatever reason, Antiochus IV Epiphanes did begin to threaten Jewish practice in Judea, and the traditionalists rebelled. A war ensued, with atrocities committed on all sides, particularly against Hellenized Jews, who were seen as traitors. Led by Judah Maccabee, the traditionalists were victorious against the Seleucids, and their victory is the foundation of the holiday of Hanukkah. Their Hasmonean Dynasty, as this independent Jewish state was called, was short-lived, but expanded territory until defeated by the Romans.

The conflict has been portrayed in various ways - as victorious Jews against a foreign invader, or as a battle between traditional Judaism and Hellenized Judaism. Both traditional and Hellenized Judaism survived the conflict, with Hellenized Jews such as the philosopher Philo successfully combining Jewish monotheism with Greek values of reason and wisdom.

Hellenistic Science

The library in Alexandria, Egypt, was the finest in the world, and contained many scrolls of knowledge. The city became a center forAnimation of Archimedes screw, showing how its internal spiral pulls water up science, funded by Hellenistic Ptolemies. Many of the scientific achievements we say came from "ancient Greece" were actually from the Hellenistic Era (except for Pythagoras' work in math). In the third century, Archimedes (mathematician, physicist, technologist) created machines that could lift ships from the water and lift water from a river. The Archimedes screw (right, image created by Silberwolf) is still in use around the world for moving water and grain in industrial processes, and was the model for the powerful screw-drive engines that would propel early steamships. Euclid's geometry is still the foundation for our study of mathematics, Aristarchus of Samos calculated that the planets must circle the sun, Hipparchus created an accurate chart of the heavens, and Claudius Ptolemy (who invented lines of latitude) and Eratosthenes (who correctly estimated the size of the earth) created maps of the world that were used for hundreds of years.

Medical advancement during this era was extraordinary. In the second century, Galen of Pergamon dissected corpses and developed our modern understanding of the circulatory system. His work was read in medical schools for centuries, well into the 1800s, and his studies of nerve and muscle control are still the foundation of our understanding in these areas. In balancing the methods of empiricists (those who dissected and experimented) with those of rationalists, Galen shows the Greek emphasis on balance and moderation. So does Hippocrates, whose oath (which starts "first, do no harm") is still taken by medical students. Hippocrates may or may not have been a real person -- it's possible that the works attributed to him are collections -- but the influence on our practice of medicine is unmistakable. His tenet that "Neither satiety nor hunger nor any other thing which exceeds the natural bounds can be good or healthful" shows the Greek emphasis on balance and moderation.

 Click here to open document in new window

Inventions in the Hellenistic age included many that weren't built for centuries: a compressed-air catapult, steam engine, slot machine, and hydraulic organ. They also created gearing, canal locks, lighthouses, alarm clocks, wind vanes, fire engines, siphons, and pumps. Even a computer.

To me, this is an important lesson in lost knowledge, and in the choices that are made in each era to emphasize one technology over others, sometimes to the detriment of society. Ptolemy's calculation of the size of the earth was wrong, and yet became standard knowledge and was used by Columbus to underestimate his journey, which nearly caused his death by mutiny. Aristotle's view that the earth was at the center of the heavens was adopted by the Church so that Copernicus and Galileo had to later defy the Church to get their ideas heard. Sometimes technologies are dismissed as "old fashioned" when a new design is superior for a particular use. Ideas left behind often need to be revived later, such as Hippocrates' emphasis on diet and non-interference in medicine.

Hellenistic Art

Aphrodite of MilosHellenistic art broke from the Greek emphasis on idealized forms and went in for drama in a big way. Sculptures and friezes show emotion and dynamism. The figures seem to move. Unfortunately, many of these works are only available to us through Roman copies, which may have been because they were originally bronze and were melted down to reuse that valuable metal. We do, however, have the Pergamon Frieze from the 2nd century BC, showing a battle between the Olympian Gods and the Giants.

Pergamon Frieze

The figures writhe and move in a natural way. We can see the emotions and pain. It may be an extension of the Hellenistic emphasis on the individual to move away from idealized forms to emphasize feeling. It may also be a rejection of Greek ideal forms to focus on feeling in a way that was less balanced with rationalism.

Unlike in Hellenic times, the female form was often shown nude (further indicating a greater role for women). This image of Aphrodite of Milos (in Latin, the Venus de Milo) is from the 2nd century BC, and clearly shows appreciation of the female form in a similar way to that shown by Hellenic artists for the male figure.Boy with Thorn

We also see in art the emphasis on daily life, on private life, on small moments. Another Roman copy of a Hellenistic figure, Boy with Thorn, is shown to the right. I can't even imagine 5th century Greece producing such a sculpture on such a mundane everyday subject.

Although the Romans at first copied these styles to learn from them, they eventually moved away from naturalism to a much more stylized and formal way of portraying people.

Lessons of History for the Hellenistic Era

4. The Hellenistic Era is as important, or even more important, to our understanding of ourselves than the history of Golden Age Greece.

5. It is through the Hellenistic Era's achievements that the Greek ideas of science and philosophy were continued and developed.

6. The choices made in technologies and scientific perspectives in one era influence all future eras.


Creative Commons License
The text by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Creative Commons License
The voice audio by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002. This page has been checked for web accessibility using WAVE.