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A R C H I T E C T U R E
B A C K G R O U N D A N D I N F L U E N C E S
The ancient Greek civilization thrived around the Mediterranean Sea from the 3rd millennium to the 1st century BC, known for advances in philosophy, architecture, drama, government, and science. The term “ancient Greece” refers to both where Greeks lived and how they lived long ago. Geographically, it indicates the heartland of Greek communities on the north coast and nearby islands of the Mediterranean Sea.
The most famous period of ancient Greek civilization is called the Classical Age, which lasted from about 480 to 323 BC. During this period, ancient Greeks reached their highest prosperity and produced amazing cultural accomplishments. Unlike most other peoples of the time, Greeks of the Classical Age usually were not ruled by kings. Greek communities treasured the freedom to govern themselves, although they argued about the best way to do that and often warred against each other. What Greek communities shared were their traditions of language, religion, customs, and international festivals, such as the ancient Olympic Games. The city-states of ancient Greece fell to Roman conquerors in 146 BC. When Rome split in the 4th century AD, Greece became part of its eastern half, the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Long after ancient Greece lost its political and military power, its cultural accomplishments deeply influenced thinkers, writers, and artists, especially those in ancient Rome, medieval Arabia, and Renaissance Europe. People worldwide still enjoy ancient Greek plays, study the ideas of ancient Greek philosophers, and incorporate elements of ancient Greek architecture into the designs of new buildings. Modern democratic nations owe their fundamental political principles to ancient Greece, where democracy originated. Because of the enduring influence of its ideas, ancient Greece is known as the cradle of Western civilization. In fact, Greeks invented the idea of the West as a distinct region; it was where they lived, west of the powerful civilizations of Egypt, Babylonia, and Phoenicia.
The Hellenistic (“Greek-like”) Period gets its name from the greater knowledge of Greek language and culture brought to the Middle East through Alexander’s conquests and from the kingdoms established by his generals after his death. All the areas where Greeks lived were already Roman provinces by the time Augustus (63 BC-AD 14) established the Roman Empire in 27 BC. Greek cities generally retained their traditional political organization, while Roman colonies in mainland Greece founded by Augustus and his predecessor, Julius Caesar, mimicked the political system of Rome. In 395 the Roman Empire split in two because protecting its vast territory against Germanic and Persian raiders became impossible for a single ruler. The dividing line fell between present-day Italy and mainland Greece. The Greeks in the west dwindled away, suffering along with their non-Greek neighbors as Germanic invaders gradually took over that part of the empire. In the eastern half, called the Byzantine Empire, Greeks maintained their language and culture. Christianity became their faith, after Constantine’s religious conversion in 312. Government: Democracy gave an equal vote to every man who was liable for military service. In the most famous democracy, Athens, this included every freeborn male over 18 years old. Athenian democracy shared authority by choosing most government officials from the citizenry through a lottery and imposing term limits. Only the most sensitive positions in military and financial affairs were filled by election. Various other city-states also had democracies, but little evidence exists about them.
Economy: Throughout its long history ancient Greece’s economy depended on agriculture and trade. Agricultural commodities were traded abroad. Besides grain, oil, and wine, trade centered on natural resources such as metals and timber, luxury goods from jewels to spices, and craft products from painted vases to bronze mirrors. The Greeks traded ideas as well as goods across the water, acquiring an alphabet, architecture, and religious ideas from Egyptian and Middle Eastern civilizations such as Babylonia and Phoenicia. People and Society: The distinguishing features of ancient Greek society were the division between free and slave, the differing roles of men and women, the relative lack of status distinctions based on birth, and the importance of religion. Religion: Traditional Greek religion was pagan polytheism, meaning that it included many gods and other supernatural beings. Greeks inherited many of their ideas about the gods from the Middle East. Their basic belief remained constant: People must honor the gods to thank them for blessings received and to receive blessings in return. Greeks considered the gods human-like in form and emotions. City-states built temples to honor the gods protecting their territory and people.
Philosophy: The first Greek philosophers were interested in theoretical science. The Greek philosophers Thales and Anaximander, who lived in the 6th century BC, reached the revolutionary conclusion that the physical world was governed by laws of nature, not by the whims of the gods. Pythagoras, who also lived in the 6th century BC, taught that numbers explained the world and started the study of mathematics in Greece. These philosophers called the universe cosmos, meaning “a beautiful thing,” because it had order based on scientific rules, not mythology. Therefore, the philosophers believed in logic. Their insistence that people produce evidence for their beliefs opened the way to modern science and philosophy. Plato’s complicated works argued universal truths did exist and that the human soul made the body unimportant. His pupil Aristotle (384-322 BC) turned away from theoretical philosophy to teach about practical ethics, self-control, logic, and science. Aristotle's works became so influential that they determined the course of Western scientific thought until modern times. The Golden Age of Greek science came in the Hellenistic period, with the greatest advances in mathematics. The geometry theories published by Euclid about 300 BC still endure. Archimedes (287-212 BC) calculated the value of pi and invented fluid mechanics. Aristarchus, early in the 3rd century BC, argued that the earth revolved around the sun, while Eratosthenes accurately calculated the circumference of the earth. Also in the 3rd century BC, Ctesibius invented machines operated by air and water pressure; Hero later built a rotating sphere powered by steam. Military technology vaulted ahead with the invention of huge catapults and wheeled towers to batter down city walls.
Art and Sculpture: The types of paintings were wall, panel and vase paintings. Greeks painted pottery and turned an everyday item into art. Mycenaean vases featured lively designs of sea creatures and dizzying whorls. By the Classical period, Greeks were carving statues in motion and in more relaxed stances. Their spirited movement and calm expressions suggested the era's confident energy. Statues of gods could be 12 m (40 ft) high and covered with gold and ivory, such as Phidias’s Athena in the Parthenon temple at Athens.
The Temple: The most characteristic Greek building is the colonnaded stone temple, built to house a cult statue of a god or goddess, that is, a statue to whom people prayed and dedicated gifts. Developed in the Archaic and Classical periods, the typical temple had a rectangular inner structure known as a cella, which was normally divided by two interior rows of columns. The cult statue usually stood at the rear of this room. Most temples faced east, and visitors entered on that side through a colonnaded front porch. The side walls of the cella extended forward onto the porch and two columns stood either between the projecting walls (in antis) or in front of them (prostyle). A back porch gave symmetry to the whole, but was usually cut off from the interior of the cella by a solid wall. Completely surrounding this inner core was a continuous line of columns called a peristyle. The best surviving examples of Greek temples are the Temple of Hephaistos (5th century BC) overlooking the Athenian agora and temples in southern Italy and Sicily from the 6th and 5th centuries.
Temple of Hephaistos
Temple of Poseidon
Typical Greek Temple Plan
Temple of Athena Polias at Priene
Greek Order: By the end of the 7th century BC, two major architectural styles, or orders, emerged that dominated Greek architecture for centuries: Doric and Ionic. The Doric order developed on the Greek mainland and in southern Italy and Sicily, while the Ionic order developed a little later than the Doric order, in Ionia and on some of the Greek islands. In addition to Doric and Ionic, a third order, the Aeolic, developed in northwestern Asia Minor, but died out by the end of the Archaic period, and a fourth, the Corinthian, emerged late in the 5th century BC. No matter what order it belonged to, a temple facade was made up of three main parts, the steps, the columns, and the entablature (the part that rested on the columns). Each of these parts also had three parts. There were three steps leading into the temple, the topmost of which was called the stylobate, and each column typically consisted of a base, shaft, and capital. The entablature consisted of an architrave (plain horizontal beam resting on the columns), a frieze, which corresponded to the beams supporting the ceiling, and a cornice, a set of decorative moldings that overhung the parts below.
Doric Order: The Doric order was the simplest and sturdiest of the three orders. Its tapering columns rest directly on the stylobate. Doric columns have no base. Shallow parallel grooves called flutes rise from the bottom to the top of the shaft and emphasize its function as a vertical support. Sharp ridges divide the flutes. At the top of the shaft a fluted ring called the necking provides a transition to the column’s capital. The Doric capital consists of a rounded, cushionlike element called the echinus, and a horizontal square element called the abacus, which bears the load of the building above. The Doric architrave is a plain beam left undecorated so as not to disguise its function. Above it, the Doric frieze consists of alternating triglyphs and metopes. Triglyphs are thick grooved panels that help support the weight of the structure above. Metopes are thinner panels that do no work in holding up the temple and hence invite decoration in the form of painting or sculpture. Overhanging the parts below is the decorative cornice molding. Like an eave it helps keep rainwater clear of the building. Above the horizontal cornice a low, pitched roof rises to produce a triangular pediment at either end of the temple. Sculpture fills the pediments of many Doric temples. The simplicity of the Doric order clearly emphasizes the structural function of each part.
Temple of Hera at Olympia
Ionic Order: The Ionic order is distinguished from the Doric primarily by its column and frieze. The Ionic column rests on an elaborate curving base rather than directly on the stylobate. The column shaft usually has deeper flutes and is more slender than the Doric. The height-to-base ratio of early Ionic columns was 8 to 1, compared with a ratio between 4 to 1 and 6 to 1 for Doric columns. The typical Ionic capital has two spiral volutes, elements that resemble partly unrolled scrolls. These straddle a small band at the top of the shaft, usually carved with an elaborate decorative pattern. The Ionic capital looks different from the sides than from the front or back. This difference caused problems in columns that stood at the corners, where volutes had to slant at a 45-degree angle so that their spiral pattern would look the same from the front of the temple as from the sides. The Ionic architrave, unlike the plain Doric architrave, consists of three narrow bands. The frieze above it is often decorated with sculpture and is continuous, not divided into triglyphs and metopes as in the Doric order. Multiple rows of moldings decorate the Ionic cornice. They are generally carved in more intricate patterns than in Doric entablatures, and may include a row of square “teeth” called dentils. Over all, Ionic is a more ornamental and graceful style than Doric, but it lacks the clarity and power of the Doric style. As a result, ancient critics regarded the Doric order as masculine and the Ionic as feminine.
Treasury of Siphnians
Temple of Artemis
Corinthian Order: The Corinthian order resembles Ionic in most aspects, but Corinthian columns have tall capitals shaped like an upside-down bell and are covered with rows of acanthus leaves and small vinelike spirals called helixes. The first known Corinthian column stood alone inside the cella of the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae (429?-405? BC). Indeed, the Corinthian order was at first used only for columns inside buildings—it did not appear externally until the 4th century BC. Its use in exterior temple colonnades did not become widespread until Roman times.
City Planning and Houses: Even before the start of the Classical period in the early 5th century BC, the Greeks had begun to lay out some cities in a gridlike plan, with streets regularly intersecting at right angles. By the 4th century BC, carefully planned cities and civic spaces had become the rule in ancient Greece. Around 350 BC, for example, the people of Priene moved from an old, haphazardly laid-out town to a new, more regular one, even though the sloping ground on which it was built made right angles awkward. Greek houses varied, but in the 5th and 4th centuries BC two standard plans emerged. Typical 5th- and 4th-century houses in Olynthus and then 2nd-century houses on the island of Delos had small rooms arranged in a rectangular plan around a colonnaded interior courtyard, often with a covered veranda facing onto it from one or two sides. A second type of house, found in Priene, also focused on an interior courtyard. But instead of a collection of small rooms, the main living area consisted of a large rectangular hall that opened onto a columned porch. Smaller rooms for servants, storage, or cooking opened off the other sides of the courtyard. In the Hellenistic period, housing types became more diverse, but houses of wealthy people might feature marble thresholds, doorways, and columns; mosaic floors depicting humans or animals; and plastered walls modeled and painted to look like fine stonework.
Acropolis: In many ways the Doric and Ionic orders both reached their zenith in the late-5thcentury buildings on the Acropolis in Athens. Athenians used both Doric and Ionic styles in many of their buildings, possibly because although Athens was in mainland Greece, where the Doric order was more prevalent, Athenians had settled Ionia. The Athenian Acropolis is a natural limestone hill that in the Bronze Age was fortified for the city’s defense and in the Archaic period was transformed into a major religious sanctuary.
A campaign centered on the Acropolis began with the Parthenon (447-432 BC). The temple they designed was unusually large, about 31 by 70 m (102 by 230 ft). Eight columns marked the front and rear facades, and 17 columns ran along each side. The cella had two rooms, east and west, each accessible from a porch. In the larger, eastern room stood a statue of Athena Parthenos. The Parthenon was built as a monument to the goddess Athena and to Athens, and testifies to the Athenians' desire to create a monument of unparalleled beauty. The columns were slender and elegant, with a height 5.5 times their diameter. The harmonious proportional relationship of each part to the whole was determined through mathematical formulae. The temple is richly adorned with sculpture—two pediments filled with statues, 92 carved metopes, numerous sculpted roof-ornaments, and a continuous Ionic frieze atop the cella walls of this otherwise Doric building. The most impressive features of the Parthenon’s design are its many optical refinements. Some scholars believe that architects in ancient Greece made subtle adjustments in their designs to overcome optical illusions that they believed would mar the perfection of their buildings. For example, a long horizontal line, such as the stylobate, appears to sag when many vertical lines (the columns) rest on top of it. To correct for this sag in the middle, the Parthenon’s architects gave the stylobate and other major horizontal lines a slight upward curve. Because of a similar optical illusion, a perfectly straight column may appear to curve inward. To correct for this, architects added a slight swelling in the taper of the columns. Another adjustment was a slight inward tilt of the columns. The corner columns were made slightly thicker than the others to prevent them from seeming spindly when seen against the backdrop of the sky, rather than the building.
The Parthenon was only one of the monuments in Pericles’s building program for the Acropolis. On the north side stood an Ionic temple known as the Erechtheum. Among its many sacred objects, the Erechtheum housed the Athenians’ most sacred statue, an ancient wooden image of Athena Polias (the name for Athena as goddess of the city). The Erechtheum was begun in the 430s or 420s and was mostly complete by 405 BC. It is laid out in an unusual asymmetrical plan. A six-columned porch on the eastern facade is mirrored by six engaged Ionic columns on the western facade, which has no porch. Columned porches on the north and south sides are not centered, but are placed toward the western end of the building. The northern porch is larger than that on the south, and awkwardly extends beyond the west side of the building. The southern porch, sometimes called the Porch of the Maidens, has six marble maidens called caryatids that support the entablature in place of columns. The irregular plan of the Erechtheum can probably be explained by a need for it to incorporate several sacred places of worship already on the site.
The Propylaea (437-432 BC) was a monumental structure that served as the main gateway to the Acropolis on its steep western approach. Like the Parthenon, the Propylaea combines the Doric and Ionic orders. Its west and east facades are Doric and recall the proportions of the Parthenon, while Ionic columns line a taller central passageway between them. The architect Mnesicles designed asymmetrical wings to the north and south of the Propylaea’s central block. Perched on a small outcropping just to the southwest of the Propylaea is the Temple of Athena Nike (420s BC), a tiny, elegant, Ionic structure with a richly sculpted frieze and two (mostly lost) pediments.
The 4th century BC was also the first great age of Greek theater construction. In the 5th century BC actors performed the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes in a modest open-air theater, the Theater of Dionysus, on the south slope of the Acropolis. In its original form, the theater consisted of a round area called an orchestra (meaning "dancing floor"), where the performance took place, and a seating area on the natural curve of the slope above. Some seats may have been of wood. Behind the orchestra a small wooden building provided scenic backdrops, a place to change costumes, and doors for dramatic entrances. Between 338 and 326 BC the Theater of Dionysus was rebuilt on a grand scale in stone, with a rising fan of stone seats on the hillside, a roughly semicircular performance area, and a permanent stone stage building. An even more impressive stone theater survives mostly intact at Epidaurus (350? BC) and is still used today. Designed by Polyclitus the Younger, it has excellent acoustics and provided the model for many later Hellenistic theaters.
Conclusion A recurring feature of Western art and architecture has been the rise of movements that imitate the images, artistic character, and architectural forms of ancient Greece to establish their own good taste and authority. The tendency to stage such Greek revivals is detectable as early as imperial Rome. Romans filled their environment with original works imported from Greece and with reproductions or variants of those works. Knowledge of Greek art and architecture passed to later Europeans by way of Rome, which altered and elaborated upon Greek originals. During the Middle Ages (5th to about 15th centuries) people made no real distinction between Greek and Roman styles. The Renaissance, a term derived from an Italian word meaning “rebirth,” was a period during which both the artistic forms and the ideals of Classical antiquity were revived and renewed. It began in Italy about 1400, spread north, and continued until about 1600. References to Classical art, architecture, and mythology were extremely common in the Renaissance. Later periods of European art are full of works that have classical subjects or have been created in a neoclassical style. Fifty years before Elgin, the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann wrote that “There is only one way for the moderns to become great and, perhaps, unequalled: by imitating the Ancients.” Although this attitude is no longer in favor, there have been many times in the history of Western art and culture when it was. Even today, the ways we think about, represent, and perceive the world are still largely founded upon the achievements of the ancient Greeks.
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