classical greece -- 3/3/23
Today's selection -- from The Visual Arts: A History by Hugh Honour & John Fleming. The Classical period of Greek civilization:
"Two historical events, the Persian war of the early fifth century BC and the temporary unification of Greece by Philip II of Macedon in 338 BC, stand at either end of what has for long been called the Classical period of Greek civilization. In 490 BC a Persian invasion of Greece as a reprisal for Athenian support of an insurrection of Greek cities in Asia Minor which had been absorbed into the empire of Darius I -- was repulsed on the plain of Marathon. A second invasion in which Athens was taken and sacked was initially more successful, but the Persian fleet was destroyed at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC and their army routed at Plataea in the following year. Nothing could have more effectively convinced the Greeks of their superiority to 'barbarians', however numerous and wellequipped. The final victory was achieved by a very exceptional co-operation between Greek states. But Athens, which with Sparta had played a leading part in the war, took most of the credit and all of the profit, immediately emerging as the dominant power in the Aegean, where the islands were virtually reduced to the status of colonies.
"The Athenian hegemony was not uncontested. Only a brief spell of peace followed the defeat of the Persians; thereafter Athens was almost constantly fighting with one or other of her neighbours and in 404 BC was herself defeated by Sparta at the end of the disastrous 27-year-long Peloponnesian War. Nor were the following decades any less disturbed by dissensions between the Greek states.
|Artemision Bronze, thought to be either Poseidon or Zeus, c. 460 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Found by fishermen off the coast of Cape Artemisium in 1928. The figure is more than 2 m in height.|
"Yet the period was marked by the most extraordinary flowering of artistic and intellectual activity the world had ever seen. From fifth-century Athens date the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, which explore and express in sublime poetry the depths of human passion, the comedies of Aristophanes, which expose with no less sublime ridicule the absurdities of human behaviour, and the teachings of Socrates, which probe the complexities of man's predicament and revealed for the first time the full capacity of the brain for abstract reasoning. All retain their vital force undimmed to the present day, after nearly 2,500 years. The visual arts also flourished and were similarly focused on human concerns, but time has treated them less well.
"It is more than likely that the fifth-century works of literature which have been preserved are those which were most highly regarded in their own time. The reverse could be said of the visual arts. The large statues of ivory and gold which were believed by the ancient Greeks to be their greatest works of sculpture have all vanished. Buildings survive but in ruins and they have lost most, and sometimes all, of the decorations for which they were renowned. Bronzes were melted down; marbles were burnt and converted into lime; of the vast number of bronze and marble statues described by ancient writers only a very few still exist. Rather oddly, more Greek sculpture remains from the Archaic than from later periods. Thus our knowledge of the most famous fifth-century works of art comes largely from written descriptions and Roman copies -- made sometimes as much as seven centuries later -- whose fidelity to the originals cannot be assessed. It is as if, to revert to a literary parallel, we knew Shakespeare's plays only from the comments of critics and French nineteenth century translations! Enough survives, nevertheless, of architecture to justify the claim that the visual arts of the fifth century BC were comparable with its literature. It was a Classical period in the sense that its products belonged to a superior class (the original meaning of the Latin word classis) and provided models of excellence, free equally from the artless simplicity of earlier and the sophisticated over-elaboration of later works -- although all this could not, of course, be recognized until long afterwards."