Art of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece laid the foundations of Western art. Traveling from its sun-splashed isles to the rugged mainland to bustling Athens, we trace the rise of Greek culture. We marvel at the timeless Acropolis, perfect Parthenon, and Golden Age theaters. And we watch as art evolves from stiff statues to perfectly balanced Venuses to the exuberant Winged Victory, capturing the spirit of the age.


[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling anywhere that theme takes us. This time, it's the art of ancient Greece: from Aphrodite and Zeus to sun-splashed temples. Thanks for joining us!

[3] Europe's first great civilization emerged over 4,000 years ago: here in Greece. An enlightened people were creating works of stunning beauty and sophistication.

[4 Montage] We'll marvel at art from the earliest Greeks: the Minoans of Crete with their colorful frescos, the Myceneans of mainland Greece, and fertility symbols from the Aegean Islands. Then, with the temples of the Acropolis in Athens, we celebrate how Greek society blossomed into a glorious Golden Age. We'll track the evolution of ancient Greek art from its stiff and awkward beginnings to statues that set the standards of beauty for Western Civilization and inspired high culture to this day.

[5] We start with the Minoans on the Isle of Crete, then to the Myceneans on the mainland, and on to Athens — capital of Golden Age Greece. We'll see Greek temples in Sicily and finish with art from Alexander the Great's vast Hellenistic Empire.

[6] The first glimmers of a truly European civilization emerged here, on the sunny islands of the Mediterranean over 4,000 years ago.

[7, Palace of Knossos, c. 2000–1350 BC, Crete, Greece] An impressive civilization on the isle of Crete was creating objects of stunning beauty. The Minoans, because they enjoyed the luxury of peace on their remote island, were free to build open, airy and unfortified palaces.

[8, Bull-Leaping Fresco, c. 1450 BC, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete] This colorful palace fresco exudes their joyful spirit. It shows young Minoans at play in their sport of bull leaping. As the bull charges, the daring athlete would grab it by the horns, get flung head-over-heels, and hope to stick the landing — "ta-da."

[9, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] This was a "fresco," a technique used throughout art history. The plaster was painted while still wet. When it dried it locked in the colors — colors that still radiate after 4,000 years.

[10, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] These joyous murals — so different from the warlike art of other early peoples — are a testament to the sophistication of the easy-goin' Minoan civilization.

[11, Mycenaeans, c. 1600-1100 BC] As dominant civilizations inevitably decline, their culture is absorbed by the next civilization to rise. The Minoans were followed by the Mycenaeans — a more warlike people on the Greek mainland. They created powerful citiesimpressive tombsand beautiful art.

[12, Archaeological site of Mycenae (northeastern Peloponnese, Greece); artifacts from National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] Unlike the Minoans, the Myceneans were a militaristic society surrounded by enemies. Their citadel was heavily fortified and stood on an easy-to-defend hill, flanked by steep ravines, with views all the way to the sea. Ideally situated for trade by both sea and land, the citadel of Mycenae flourished.

[13, The Lion Gate, 1250 BC, Mycenae, Greece] Its mighty Lion Gate would have been awe-inspiring, a symbol of power. Yet it was simple architecturally, with only a corbelled arch much weaker than a round Roman-style arch (which wouldn't be adopted for a thousand years). They could only span the width of a single flat stone. But the Myceneans built with huge stones — so huge that a thousand years later Greeks would look with wonder at these walls and declare "no man could build with such stones. It must be the work of the Cyclops." In fact, this came to be called "Cyclopean architecture".

[14] Despite their limited technology, the Myceneans were ingenious.

[15, Tholos Tomb, Mycenae, Greece] For example, this passageway leads to an underground royal tomb. The corbelled stonework was an engineering marvel. Designed like a stone igloo, this tomb was the grandest dome of its day. In fact, this remarkable Mycenean structure would remain the biggest dome in the world for over a thousand years. This was a vast distance to span with no internal supports — a wonder in its day.

[16, artifacts from National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] These early Greeks had the technology to melt tin and copper together to make bronze. As people of the Bronze Age, they had the best tools and weapons yet. And they came with an artistic flair. The ornamentation, whether for the simple things of everyday life or tools of war, was exquisite.

[17, Vapheio Cups, 1st half 15th century BC; Mask (not) of "Agamemnon," 16th century BC, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] The Myceneans were famous for their fine gold work, including this so-called "Mask of Agamemnon" — a death mask placed on the face of a dead king in his coffin. These delicate golden cups are another example of impressive Mycenean artistry.

[18, Temple of Hephaestus, c. 450 BC, Ancient Agora, Athens] From Egyptians to Minoans to Mycenaeans, the march of progress was on, and next, Athens would lead the way.

[19, Parthenon Temple, mid-fifth century BC, Acropolis, Athens] Rising up from the teeming heart of modern Athens, the Acropolis hill shines like a beacon of civilization. By the year 500 BC, here in the city of Athens, the Greek people were laying the foundations of what we know as Western civilization. Democracy, literature, theater, mathematics, science, philosophy and art all flourished in Greece during its Golden Age. And this set a template for centuries of European culture that followed.

[20] Athens' Acropolis — literally its "high city" — was a place of worship and a refuge in war. And just below that, here in the Agora or market, civic life flourished — and Greek civilization thrived. The Agora had all the basic features of urban Greek life: from shopping malls to temples.

[21, Stoa of Attalos, c. 150 BC, Ancient Forum, Athens] This covered portico, or "stoa," is totally rebuilt so we can better imagine it in action. Crowds would gather here to shop, socialize, or listen to the great philosophers of the age.

[22, Stoa of Attalos] Imagine, four centuries before Christ, hanging out in a place like this, celebrating the rise of creative thinking. You could bump into great philosophers like Aristotle or Socrates… "Hey, know thyself."

[23] But Socrates and Aristotle and the brilliance of ancient Greece's Golden Age didn't just pop out of nowhere. Burdened with a rugged, isolating landscape and endless intercity warfare, the Greeks spent centuries floundering in an earlier Dark Age.

[24] They had a warrior ethos, which you can see in their art: lots of battle scenes and conflict. Scenes of wild satyrs chasing human women or of humans battling centaurs reflected the Greeks' long struggle to rise above their warring heritage.

[25, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] We can follow the rise of Greece through the steady evolution of its art, from stiff to balanced, to "jump off the stage." In fact, a good art historian can date ancient Greek statues nearly to the decade just by looking at them.

[26, Niki Vlachou, Athens guide] With a local guide, we're tracking the evolution of Greek sculpture from the early Archaic Age to the Classical Era — that's roughly 700 to 400 BC.

Niki: This is all Archaic art, meaning the time of Greek history that they started making statues out of marble that were still very much influenced from the Egyptians. The Archaic statues would have very common characteristics between them — more generic characteristics. The hair would be long and beautifully curled, their faces would have a frozen smile, they would have the almond-shaped eyes — the high eyebrows, and would in general look very much alike.

Rick: It's like they're all cousins — they have the same little grin.

Niki: Yes, they do. And the names were kouros for the boys and kore for the girls. Very generic.

Rick: Just "boy," "girl."

Niki: Just "boy," "girl."

Rick: So they didn't really have a very sophisticated understanding of the body.

Niki: No, the body's looking more oversized. All the parts of the body are there: their shoulders, their knees, and the general characteristics of the body anatomy — but, yes, they were more stiff and steady, and if they could move, they would look like monsters.

So, we move to the Classical times: statues that evolve the same way as knowledge of the human body evolves. And they're able to depict beauty and anatomy in a much better way. From the Archaic times, when the statues were stiff and steady, we pass to more freedom and more balance of the way that the body's depicted, and to the contrapposto way of posing.

Contrapposto is the way of posing the statues we depict that is kind of having the body shaped in the shape of the letter S, with all the weight of the body leaning on the one leg, leaving one shoulder more relaxed, and the body showing more movement.

[Artemision Bronze, c. 460 BC, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] This is a beautiful statue from the Classical times depicting either Zeus or Poseidon. We don't really know since what he was holding has not been found. If it was Poseidon he would be holding his trident. If it was Zeus he'd be holding his thunder bolt.

It's a statue that really shows how confident and strong the Greeks felt right after the end of the war with the Persians. So, through art, they were absolutely showing the way that they felt.

[33, Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens] By 500 BC, Athens was becoming the bustling center of a growing Greek-speaking world. The energetic Athenians built up their sacred hill — the Acropolis — turning it into the heart of their culture.

[34, Erechtheion Temple, Acropolis, Athens] They topped the Acropolis with glorious temples, statues, and monuments honoring the gods and celebrating their own achievements. This temple was famed for its caryatids, beautiful maidens functioning as columns — striking for their realism and relaxed poses.

[35, Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens] But the greatest temple was the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the patron of Athens. In its heyday, the temple was decorated with colorful painted sculpture. And inside stood a 40-foot-tall gold-and-ivory statue (this is a reproduction) of the goddess Athena. Dazzling in both beauty and power, both the statue and the temple had a huge impact on people.

[36] The temple is massive: 230 feet long and 100 feet wide, made from the finest white marble, and assembled here like a 70,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Its 34-foot-tall columns are simple yet elegant.

[37] The architects used clever if subtle optical illusions that added to the harmonious effect: The steps intentionally arc upward in the middle, to compensate for how a flat line appears to sag. The columns lean together just slightly, and bulge in the middle, as if absorbing the weight of the stone roof. Altogether, it's organic. Rather than static stone, it feels alive, with perfect proportions, as if heroically connecting with the gods. Subconsciously, it works — a two thousand five-hundred-year-old architectural triumph.

[38] The typical Greek temple is circled by decorative panels, carved reliefs called "metopes." The building inside the columns is called the "cella" — which itself is often decorated by a ring of carved reliefs called a "frieze." And remember, it wasn't just bare white marble. It was full of color. This reconstruction shows how a temple's triangular pediments were filled with statues — originally brightly painted — which told the mythological story of that place of worship.

[39] The Parthenon was decorated with over a hundred such reliefs and statues. The best, taken in the early 19th century by the English, are now in the British Museum in London.

[40, Parthenon Sculptures (formerly Elgin Marbles), British Museum, London] The Parthenon's 500-foot-long frieze portrays a festive annual parade up to the Acropolis.

[41] The realism is impressive, the anatomy correct: the men's muscles, the horses' bulging veins, and the sense of movement and energy of the procession.

[42] This pediment was decorated with the legend of the birth of Athena. The gods are lounging at a banquet, when suddenly there's a stir, and they all turn to watch as Athena arrives. From the relaxed poses, to the women's pleated robes, to the dramatic gestures, and awe-struck horses — the realism is stunning.

[43] The Greeks prided themselves on creating order out of chaos, and the Parthenon — with its classic Greek proportions, dramatic statues, and elegant reliefs — represents the struggle and ultimate triumph of rational thought…of order over chaos.

[44, Temple of Concordia, c. 435 BC, Agrigento, Sicily] As the Greek culture spread, temples like these were built all over the ancient Mediterranean world. This Doric temple, in Sicily, shows the predictable layout: The temple normally faced east, it was ringed by columns made of real marble or stuccoed to look that way, it sits on a raised base with steps. The inner room, or "cella," was reserved for priests and gods. Regular worshippers gathered outside.

[45] These stones supported a massive sacrificial altar, always at the east end of the temple. It was said they could sacrifice 100 oxen at once, as thousands gathered — and with the meaty feast that followed, there was always a good turnout.

[46] These columns, knocked over in an earthquake, illustrate how Greek columns were made not from a single piece but from stacks of stone drums held together with a peg in the center, and capped with a capital.

[47 OC] Once the drums were stacked, the grooves were carved — that's called fluting. And then, a layer of plaster was added to make it look like marble. Finally, the temple's decorative features were painted with bold colors.

[48] By the way, the style of temples evolved over time — and can be identified by the capital: The capitals, or tops of the columns, were both functional — to minimize the distance the lintel needed to span — and decorative. While just the tip of the architectural iceberg, the capitals are handy indicators, helping us identify the three main architectural "orders," or styles. The earliest style, Doric, has flat, practical plates as capitals. In the next order, Ionic, the capitals are decorated with understated scrolls. The final order, Corinthian, features leafy capitals… boldly decorative with no apologies necessary. How to remember all these? As the orders evolve, they gain syllables: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian.

[49] Whatever the order, Greek temples, with their ingenious engineering and perfect proportions, are stone symbols of how the rational Greeks were conquering chaos and ushering in a Golden Age led by Athens.

[50, Stoa of Attalos, Ancient Agora, Athens] The Golden Age — roughly around 450 BC — was the peak of Greek civilization. It was the age of Socrates and Plato, of democracy, philosophy, and a flowering of the arts — including drama and performance arts.

[51, Ancient Greek theater at Epidavros, Greece, late fourth century BC] Every city had a theater. Performance arts were woven into society — going to a play was like going to church — it was where morals were taught.

[52, Ancient Greek theaters at Ephesus in Turkey and Taormina in Sicily] Greeks generally built their theaters into hillsides. Given their size — often with over 10,000 seats — and the obvious lack of modern amplification, the acoustics needed to be excellent...and they still are.

[53, theater at Ephesus]

Rick: Friends, Greeks, wayfarers, in these times of discord, fear is rampant in our society. I contend that the flip side of fear is understanding. And those who travel will reap great understanding — by meeting people who find other truths to be self-evident and God-given.

[54, Temple of Hephaestus, c. 450 BC, ancient Agora, Athens] During the Greek Golden Age, the age when the Greeks created some of the greatest works of art ever, the guiding principle was the Golden Mean: in other words, "nothing in excess." In both life and art, it was all about the Golden Mean: everything was to be in balance.

[55] For the Greeks, the human body epitomized the balance and order of the cosmos. The balanced contrapposto pose — again, weight resting on one leg — is found on countless statues. They were looking for the perfect balance between opposites, between stillness and motion — like this athlete as he coils — pausing just before unleashing the discus. The correct proportions of these perfect humans echoed the order of the Greek cosmos and symbolized their highest ideals. The optimistic Greeks portrayed their gods as humans with perfect anatomy.

[56, Venus de Milo, c. 150–125 BC, Louvre, Paris] This well-proportioned statue, from a later period, is Venus de Milo. This "goddess of love" epitomizes the balance the Greeks so admired. Split Venus down the middle, from nose to toes, and see how the two halves balance. Her contrapposto pose sets her entire body in motion. Her left leg rises, while her right shoulder drops. Her knee points one way, her face the other. All this gives her body a pleasing S-curve, as Venus slowly orbits around her vertical axis. Amid an entourage of twisting and striding statues, each modeling the ideal human form, Venus de Milo reigns supreme, summing up all that was best in the ancient Greek world.

[57] For the Greeks, the evolution of their goddesses mirrored the evolution of their society: from the simple figurines of the earliest times to the stiff-but-stable statues of the Archaic period after their centuries of turmoil, settling into the Golden Age — becoming ever-more relaxed and realistic — and, finally, the wild exuberance of this goddess emblematic of the next stage in Greek art: the Hellenistic era.

[58, Jockey of Artemision, 150–140 BC, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] The Golden Age of Greece was followed by the age of Hellenism. In art, the importance of composure and balance was pushed aside by a cultural exuberance — there was more motion and more emotion.

[59] Eventually Greeks to the north, in Macedonia, emerged as a political and military power, where one remarkable man — Alexander the Great — was about to take Greek culture and spread it far and wide. Around 330 BC, Greek values were spread abroad by the conquests of Alexander. Within a decade, this young and determined leader had established

[60, map] the so-called "Hellenistic" empire — a unified, Greek-speaking culture that stretched from Europe to Egypt and deep into Asia.

[61] The art from this age reflected the fast-changing times, with influences from all across the cosmopolitan Greek world. Compared with the Golden Age, Hellenistic art is ultra-realistic — like this weary bronze boxer with exhaustion written all over his battered body. Hellenistic portraits were less idealized and more individual — even eccentric. Once-balanced Golden-Age statues were now charged with energy, dramatically capturing turbulent scenes.

[62, Winged Victory (or Nike) of Samothrace, 200–175 BC, Louvre, Paris] A good example is this "Nike," or goddess of victory. Perched on the prow of a ship, celebrating yet another Greek conquest, she thrusted her arm up like a Super Bowl champion. As her sea-sprayed dress whips in the wind, she stands steady like a pillar of strength — celebrating the ecstasy of victory.

[63, Laocoön, 40–30 BC, Vatican Museums, Rome] Taking us from the thrill of a Hellenistic victory to the agony of defeat, this man and his sons wrestle with snakes, punished for trying to warn his fellow Trojans about Greek invaders. The scene ripples with drama. The poses twist, straining every muscle. The line of motion runs diagonally, up the leg and through the body, taking Hellenistic imbalance and exuberance to a whole new level.

[64, Jockey of Artemision, 150–140 BC, National Museum of Archeology, Athens] This bronze horse and jockey is also charged with Hellenistic energy. The high-spirited detail is astonishing, right down to the horse's dramatic head, and the concerned look on the young jockey's face.

[65, Horses of Saint Mark, 300 BC–AD 400, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice] And, prancing in pairs, these chariot horses also capture the exuberant spirit of the age. Again, the realism is remarkable: the bulging veins, the creases in their necks as they rear back, heaving chests…so alive. With flashing eyes and flaring nostrils, they are the epitome of equestrian energy.

[66] Greek culture — and its art — was galloping both east and west. With the Hellenistic Age, it became dominant across much of their known world. The same gods, same plays, in the same language, were celebrated in theaters like this throughout a vast empire. But great as Greece was, it was soon to be eclipsed.

[67] Like all civilizations, ancient Greece eventually fell, but it lives on in so many ways.

[68] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the society that created it. I hope you've enjoyed our sweep through the highlights of ancient Greece. And Europe was just getting started. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!