The Art of the Greeks





The stoa (covered walkway) at the Acropolis. given by Attalus II of Pergamum in c.145bc, celebrates the mythical and historical victories of order over chaos. The passage of time is depicted in the victims' agony -for example, a horse collapsed under a falling Amazon, a child stroking its still warm mother -marking the relentless approach of the death that will destroy the aggressors. The sense of disquiet conveyed by these fragments springs from the contrasting values of form and composition that each figure preserves from the overall design, like snatches of an epic poem. The isolated copies now on pedestals in museums have lost their original coherence, for it was the serial nature of the scenes of slaughter, the disjointed bodies that looked as if they had been violently pushed in a frantic scuffle, that endowed the works with a feeling of metaphysical truth. The result was to present the vanquished in a primitive, idealized light, which gave the drama a sense of totality that had been lost when the classical ideal was abandoned. The clearly defined figures of giants, Amazons. Persians, and Gauls stand out against the dazzling background. with no evidence of physical authenticity. Each episode is a pretext for the reinvention of the battle, in which the character of the combatants is filtered through an imaginary veil that binds them ail together in a spell, freezes them in static poses, astonished by their wounds, and rendered motionless by death.

Fallen Giant,
Baths of Alexander Severus, Rome.
National Archaeological Museum, Naples



Hippolyta Dying with the Young Theseos,
drawing made before the restoration
of a group statue in the
National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
Kupferstichkabinett, Basel, Switzerland

copy by a Neo-Attic artist a
fter Polycleitos, Delos.
National Archaeological Museum, Naples


By marrying his half-sister Arsinoe in 278bc, Ptolemy II established the Egyptian cult of rulers known as Theoi Adelphoi. It was their love for each other that inspired the name Philadelphia, given to the colony founded in the Fayum oasis as part of a far-reaching agrarian policy under the supervision of Zeno of Kaunos. The papyri in Zeno's archive detail the care taken by the Alexandrine Greeks to create an environment in keeping with their civic aspirations. In 256bc, Zeno commissioned Theodorus, an Alexandrine painter, to decorate the houses according to strict specifications. The following year, Theodorus tackled the house of Diothimus. the "vice-administrator" of Philadelphia. The decoration consisted of large areas of different colour with a broader central band, the same format that appears in some Alexandrine tombs, with the master undertaking to decorate the ceiling of the main room in accordance with the agreed model. The papyri also reveal that the artist made panel paintings: mention is made of "strong" sinope red, suitable for use on wood, as well as wax and glue from Busiris (an ancient city of Lower Egypt), technical elements that were later used in funerary portraits from the same Fayum region. For his encaustic paintings (using paint mixed with soft wax) Theodorus used a heated metal spatula. His last letter to Zeno reveals a yearning for his Alexandrine workshop: "Since the commission from you is finished and there is no more work, I have no money. If you still have some paintings that need to be done, please be so kind as to give me the job so that I may have enough to live on. If you cannot offer me any work, please send me money for travelling expenses so that I can return to my brothers in the city."


Roman Restoration

Laocoon and His Two Sons
Hagesandrus, Polydorus, and Athenodorus
Ist century BC
Vatican Museums, Rome

The arrival of the Romans in in Greece in 167bc signalled a nostalgic reversion by Greek artists to forms of the past. They looked back to the distant days of classical form and more recent Hellenistic works for inspiration. In 166bc. a free port was opened by the Athenians at Delos, an event that led to the economic decline of Rhodes and a crisis for its school of bronze-workers, whose final works included the mournful groups of Scylla and Laocoon. Thanks to commissions from the Roman ruling class, work produced by families of traditional Athenian sculptors was revived. Likenesses of Italic merchants at Delos were placed on statues carved in the old aristocratie style. A small painting on marble from the city of Herculaneum, Girls Playing Knucklebones (derived from a work by Zeuxis and signed by Alexander as copyist) was delicately coloured according to classical rules. At Pergamum, Rhodes, and Antioch, the importance of the space around a sculpture diminished, in deference to the Athenian style, while a Neo-Egyptian style appeared at the court of the Ptolemies, giving visual form to the religious reconciliation foisted on Egypt by their Macedonian invaders. The realistic style used to raise social awareness by earlier generations was exaggerated in the realism of Alexandrine artists. The result verged on the romantic, but was a reminder of and a comment on social injustices. It marked the slide from Utopian ideals to disenchantment, and the beginnings of civilization on a mass scale.

Giris Playing Knucklebones,
painting on marble signed by the Athenian Alexander,
copy after Zeuxis,
National Archaeological Museum, Naples




Venus de Milo

The Venus de Milo is an ancient Greek statue and one of the most famous pieces of ancient Greek sculpture. It is believed to depict Aphrodite (called Venus by the Romans), the Greek goddess of love and beauty . It is a marble sculpture, slightly larger than life size at 203 cm (80 inches) high, but without its arms and its original plinth. From an inscription on its now-lost plinth, it is thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch; it was earlier mistakenly attributed to the master sculptor Praxiteles. The statue dates to about 130 BC. Despite this relatively late date, its composition is a mixture of earlier styles from the Classical period of Greek sculpture. It is not known exactly what aspect of Venus the statue originally depicted. It is generally thought to have been a representation of Venus Victrix holding the golden apple presented to her by Paris of Troy (see also the Judgement of Paris). This would also have served as a pun on the name of the island Melos, which means "apple" in the Greek language. A fragment of a forearm and hand with an apple were found near the statue and are thought to be remnants of its arms. After the statue was found, numerous attempts were made to reconstruct its pose, though it was never restored.

(From Wikipedia)

Venus de Milo
Parian marble,
150-120 bc.
Musee du Louvre, Paris



statuett from Rome.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The best way to appreciate fully the many different variations in Greek painting style is to compare portraits of the same person executed at different times. An original effigy of Antisthenes. the philosopher and founder of the Cynic sect, was moulded in Athens shortly after his death (366nc). However, he can also be seen in more recent copies by Phyromachus (c.290-245bc), another Athenian who worked at the court at Pergamum. Phyromachus' dynamic contrasts and chiaroscuro unshackle the figure's polemical spirit — his very name indicated an attitude of obstinate opposition. A sullen old man, according to Lucian. the Greek rhetorician and satirist, "with his unkempt beard and furrowed eyebrows, his Titan's glare and ruffled hair at the front". Of Diogenes, the most famous Cynic philosopher, there are replicas both of the portrait dedicated in Athens during his life (he died in about 325bc) and of a statuette conceived in Alexandria as an ornament for the Library (120-100bc). The more ancient busts of these thinkers reveal an affinity with portraits of Socrates.

bronze attributed to Silanion
Provincial Museum, Brindisi, Italy


Roman copy of the bust by Phyromachos.
Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City

Roman copy.
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome

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