Rick Steves' Art: Prehistoric and Ancient

As the Ice Age glaciers melted, European civilization was born — and with it, so was art. From the Stone Age came prehistoric art: mysterious tombs, mighty megaliths, and vivid cave paintings. Then the Egyptians and the Greeks laid the foundations of Western art — creating a world of magical gods, massive pyramids, sun-splashed temples, and ever-more-lifelike statues.  

Find names and locations for works of art listed in the Script.


[1, Parthenon at Acropolis, Athens] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, here with a fascinating chapter in the long and inspirational story of Europe's art. In this hour, it's Europe's mysterious beginnings — the world of magical goddesses, massive pyramids, and sun-splashed temples. This is art from the Stone Age to Ancient Greece. Thanks for joining us.

[3, Erechtheion Temple with caryatids, Acropolis, Athens] For about as long as there've been people, there's been art. We'll trace that spark of human creativity from the Stone Age, to the pyramids of Egypt, to the artistic treasures of Europe's first great civilization: Greece.

[4] Starting from the very beginning, we'll marvel at the earliest art…and be mystified by circles of stone — celestial calendars that line up with the sun. We'll bow our heads to enter sacred tombs, admire artful treasures lovingly crafted by pre-historic Celts; figurines worshipped for fertility; and decorated horns that still play after 5000 years. In Egypt, we'll ponder pyramids, explore long lost tombs preserving the art of God-like pharaohs, and gaze into the gilded eyes of King Tut. Art heralds the rise of Greece: treasure troves of gold, breath-taking igloos of stone, and gracefully sculpted gods. Ancient theaters still resonate, reliefs recall mythic processions, and bronze wonders evoke a rich culture…all dazzling art that celebrates the foundation of Western civilization.

[5, West Kennet Long Barrow megalithic tomb, Avebury, England, c. 3500 BC] Once upon a time, some 30,000 years ago, when Ice Age glaciers melted, people had time to do more than just survive. Eventually, civilization in Europe was born and with that, so was art.

[6] Prehistoric Europeans, because they were human, were driven to create. Even before there was architecture, there were caves. In the south of France, with its honeycombed limestone cliffs, early humans painted surprisingly realistic scenes on the walls of caves.

[7, Font-de-Gaume Cave, Dordogne, France] From about 18,000 until 10,000 BC, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth, prehistoric people painted deep inside caves in this part of Europe. These weren't just crude doodles, but huge and sophisticated projects executed by artists and supported by an impressive culture.

[8] The most famous cave, Lascaux, now has a precisely copied replica next door, built to help conserve the original.

[9, Lascaux Cave facsimile, c. 18,000 BC, Dordogne, France] It's easy to underestimate the sophistication of people 10 or 20,000 years ago. These long-ago societies captured the world they knew with extraordinary skills. Wild animals are impressively realistic, caught in full motion — running, jumping, facing off. The canvas for these early artists was enormous — this cavern alone is a football field long, with over 600 animals life-size or larger. By torchlight, they'd flicker to life.

[10] Guide: We are in the Oxen Room, the most spectacular room of Lascaux. It's a sacred place. We don't live in a church; they never lived in the caves. And it's a huge composition, it's a calculated composition, because they have taken advantage of the slip of rock to relate in a circle two groups of bulls facing each other. And in the center of this composition, they have united the three principal animals of Lascaux: horse, ox, and deer.

Rick: Is this a hunting scene?

Guide: No, it's not a hunting scene because on the walls the hunter doesn't exist. They never tell the everyday life; the meaning is more complex.

Rick: What is the biggest animal?

Guide: It is this bull — it is the largest painting in the cave: 16 feet from the top of the horn to the tip of the tail.

[11] While over 15,000 years old, this was not the work of crude "cavemen," but of a complex society that produced skilled artists. Flames from these oil lamps flickered in those art-covered caverns. Think of how impressive the challenges must have been — hauling in materials, grinding paints, erecting scaffolding — all before that first prehistoric Michelangelo could reach up and paint the first stroke.

[12, National Museum of Prehistory, Les Eyzies, France] Surviving artifacts give insight into these people. Mourners draped delicate jewelry on the corpses of loved ones — necklaces of stag teeth and tiny shells strung together. These barbed spearheads and fishhooks would work well today. Finely carved spear throwers show impressive naturalism for something three times as old as the oldest pyramids.

[13] Art is part of being human: We communicate and tackle problems. We imagine and evolve. What did the paintings mean? What emotions did they trigger? Did they worship these animals? Or capture them in paint to magically capture them in the hunt? We just don't know. But we do know that the people who painted these are like our close cousins. Compared to the beginning of humanity — born in Africa three million years ago — Lascaux was like yesterday.

[14] Since early nomadic hunter-gatherers were prehistoric — with no written histories — we only know them from the mysterious clues they left us. And none are more mysterious than their huge stone monuments found all over Europe. This is from the "megalithic" age — characterized, literally, by big stones.

[15, Stonehenge, c. 2500 BC, Amesbury, England] At Stonehenge, in England, huge carved stones — some over 20 feet tall and weighing 25 tons — stand in a circle. The stones were erected with Stone Age technology, before the advent of metal tools. As we look at the museum's simple artifacts and replica thatched-hut hamlet, it's hard to imagine how these humble early people managed it.

[16, Stonehenge Visitor Centre] Huge stones like this replica were quarried, carved, and then moved for many miles — some of them from as far away as Wales, 200 miles to the west. They barged them down rivers; they may have rolled them on logs like this — nobody knows for sure.

[17, demonstration at Stonehenge Visitor Centre] Marveling at these stones, we ponder the purpose of these stone circles — perhaps sacred centers of ritual and worship. We know they functioned as celestial calendars. As this 360-degree theater demonstrates, the structure is aligned with the heavens — marking both the longest and the shortest days of the year. Four thousand years ago locals could tell when to plant — and when to party — according to where the sun rose and where the sun set. And even today, as the sun rises on the longest day of the year in just the right spot, it casts a powerful spell of wonder.

[18, Avebury, England] Nearby, at Avebury, visitors wander through a cohesive ensemble of ditches, mounds, and megaliths — the work of people clearly on a mission. The huge circle — while now cut in two by a busy road and so big it contains a village — retains its allure.

[19, megaliths, Orkney, Scotland; Scorhill Stone Circle, Dartmoor, England; Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, England] Hundreds of these Stone Age calendars are scattered over the isle of Britain — each built by people working together — people doing more than merely surviving. My favorites are the ones that are tranquil, all alone in a field, where you can reflect on the mysteries of who built them and why.

[20, Clava Cairns near Inverness, Scotland] These earliest man-made stone structures were for the living and for the dead — most of what survives were tombs designed in a way that lined up with the heavens, that seemed to indicate a kind of religion and a concern for the afterlife.

[21, West Kennet Long Barrow near Avebury, England; Lanyon Quoit, Cornwall, England] Long before the pyramids of Egypt, the powerful had stone tombs built to protect their bodies. The soil that buried this structure has long since eroded away.

[22, Newgrange and Knowth passage tombs, County Meath, near Dublin] These ancient peoples' lives were dictated by the seasons and the natural world around them. Again, the greatest tombs aligned with the rising sun.

[22A, Knowth, c. 3200 BC] This is a "necropolis" — a city of the dead — built in Ireland, with several grassy mounds around one grand tomb. Being a passage tomb, it tracked the sun, with one tunnel facing east and one facing west — aligned so that on both the spring and fall equinoxes, rays from the rising and setting sun shine down the passageways, illuminating its central chamber.

[23, Knowth, near Dublin]

Guide: To give you an idea of the sweep of the history here, these sites were built approximately 5,300 years ago — approximately 3300 BC — which puts them 500 years older than the oldest pyramids in Egypt, 1,000 years older than Stonehenge in Wiltshire in England. So these people put a huge amount of energy and resources, and basically a huge amount of their wealth, into constructing these monuments. They were probably thinking not just about survival but issues around life, death, the story of their tribe, their ancestors; issues like rebirth, where did they come from, where were they going to.

[24, Newgrange, c. 3300 BC, near Dublin] Nearby is an even older sacred mound, also built for some kind of ritual of the sun. An impressively large structure faced with white quartz and decorated with abstract engravings, it's a testament to the engineering abilities and desire to ornament of people from over 5,000 years ago.

[25, Newgrange, near Dublin] A narrow passageway leads to the central chamber under a 20-foot-high stone dome. Bones and ashes were placed here under a massive mound of stone and dirt to wait for that special moment when, as the sun rises on the shortest day of the year, a ray of light shines into the passageway and for 17 minutes it lights the center of the sacred chamber.

[26] Perhaps this was the moment when the souls of the dead would be transported to the afterlife via that mysterious ray of life-giving and life-taking sunlight.

[27, Neolithic Age, c. 7000–1700 BC] Roughly 8,000 years ago, across Europe, the last part of the Stone Age was marked by tribes settling down, shifting from hunter-gatherers to farmers. This was the Late Stone Age — also called the "Neolithic Age" — still before the advent of metal working.

[28, Maeshowe Chambered Tomb, c. 3500 BC, Orkney, Scotland. Guide: Kinlay Frances of Orkney Uncovered] On the isle of Orkney at the far north of Scotland in what seems like just another field, is a remarkable burial mound, or chambered tomb. For 5,000 years, people have lowered their heads to enter this sacred space.

Rick: Wow! This is great. Tell me about this place.

Guide: This is a burial chamber, and to our right and our left, and behind you, are three tombs. On winter solstice, at sunset, the sun streams through this position here, and illuminates the back chamber.

Rick: Wow!

Guide: The stone is sandstone, and it's been hand-carved and corbelled, vaulted into position, to make this beautiful chamber. And how Neolithic man managed to build this structure, no one really knows.

[29, Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland, c. 3100 BC] Orkney is dotted with monuments recalling when it was a center of civilization, back in the Stone Age, with more people then than there are on the island today. Imagine a community here, hunkered down in subterranean homes, connected by tunnels.

[30] Guide: It was a big community — 150 people living here at one stage. A third of the village remains. Two-thirds were taken away by the North Atlantic. People lived under the ground, in stone-type igloo buildings with turf roofs, and they lived under the ground to keep the weather out, to keep them warm. They were powered by oil lamps, with whale oil and whalebone basins, and a very nice-looking community.

[31, Avebury, England] While little remains from these prehistoric people, it seems clear the timeless mysteries of life — birth, death, and what lies beyond — were on their minds.

[32, Venus of Willendorf, c. 25,000 BC, Natural History Museum, Vienna. Cycladic figurines, c. 3000 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens] From the very earliest times, the most common art created was small statues of women. They have long been called "Venus figurines." Across many ages, whether lean or bountiful, these have similar features: arms folded, generic faces, and stylized breasts and pubic area. By emphasizing a woman's life-giving traits, they were likely fertility symbols — perhaps worshiped as a way to gain Mother Nature's favor for having a child, a good harvest, or rebirth.

[33, West Kennet Long Barrow, near Avebury, England] Amazingly, early people created such art before writing and before metal tools. The prehistoric era is divided into ages, defined by ever-more-sophisticated technology: from the Stone Age, to early metal-working in the Bronze Age, to stronger objects of the Iron Age. It's by their tools and weapons that we know how advanced a society was. And as prehistory progressed from stone to metal, art also took a step forward.

[34, Grauballe Man, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark, c. 390 BC] The so-called "bog people," whose bodies, weapons, and treasures were preserved in peat bogs, give us an intimate peek at prehistoric lives. As early people believed the gods lived in the bogs, that's where they tossed their sacrificial offerings. After defeating your enemy, logically you'd sacrifice him and toss his weapons to the bog gods. Because of the oxygen-free environment, this 2,300-year-old "bog man" looks like a fellow half his age. Archeologists think he looked like this in happier times. He sprawls out in his glass tomb as if to welcome visitors old and young to marvel at his skin, nails, and even the slit throat he was given back at his sacrificial banquet.

[35] This elderly woman from Denmark — whose coffin, carved out of an oak tree, was preserved in a peaty bog — must have believed in an afterlife. Imagine her loved ones tenderly placing these precious possessions with her. Still wearing her original wool blouse, she packed a finely carved horn comb, bronze jewelry, and a dagger.

[36] Despite their simple technology, early people created some richly decorated objects. All of these artifacts are unnecessarily beautiful and ornate. The creative spirit of humankind becomes evident very early on.

[37, Artifacts and Lur Horns, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen] These were ritual objects, made by sun worshippers. This "Chariot of the Sun" from Denmark illustrates how the sun was dragged across the sky by a divine horse. These horned helmets were worn by the ancestors of the Vikings as pagan priests sounded these horns, adding atmosphere to this now eerie ritual. While 3,000 years old, they still play. The ornamental disc is a sun symbol — perhaps as if these horns played the magical music of the sun.

[38, Mycenean gold, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] From Ireland to Greece, these early societies invested in art. These precious artifacts — from golden jewelry to finely decorated implements of daily life — are more reminders that those earliest Europeans had an eye for beauty and a passion for art.

[39, Avebury, England] Despite all its impressive art, prehistoric Europe was still little more than a jumble of scattered tribes. But of course, this stew of people would eventually become the Europe we know today.

[40] While not in Europe, the more advanced civilization of Egypt would contribute to the rise of European civilization. With god-like kings, incredible wealth and power concentrated in the royal court, a preoccupation with religion, and an ability to organize beyond anything yet, Egypt was a society of grand architecture, massive temple complexes, a sophisticated written language, and lavish art.

[41, Pyramids at Giza, near Cairo, Egypt] Towering just outside the capital city of Cairo stands the greatest sight of the ancient world — the pyramids at Giza. The tombs of three great kings, these monuments were built to protect the bodies and preserve the memories of fabulously wealthy and powerful pharaohs.

[42, Giza, Egypt] The iconic sights of Egypt — four or five thousand years old — are basically buildings and art for dead people. Back then, they believed you could take it with you. And your big challenge: to be sure your body and your valuables survived the journey into the afterlife. That's why, if you had the power and the money, you'd lock everything up in a big tomb — a pyramid. These are the most famous: the pyramids of Giza.

[43] The pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu is the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This grandest of all pyramids — 700 feet long on each side — was built 2,500 years before Christ. The neighboring pyramids are likely those of Khufu's son and grandson. The smaller ones? They're for the mothers and wives.

[44] Workers dragged over two million huge stones up ramps, eventually constructing this 450-foot-high monument. In their day, the pyramids were encased in a shiny limestone veneer. I sure hope Khufu was satisfied.

[45] Egyptian pharaohs spent a good part of their lives and their kingdom's wealth building these huge tombs, which served as lockers for whatever they wanted to take into the afterlife: their bodies, their treasures — even their favorite pets.

[46, Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt] Nearly everything filling these old halls is funerary art, art designed to help save the souls of the pharaohs: statues filled with symbolism, written prayers, and offerings to deal with the gods and help assure a happy transition into the afterlife.

[47, treasures from Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt] This ancient art is so well-preserved because most of it was hidden away for 4,000 years, locked up dark and dry, in tombs. This portrayal of geese dates from 2500 BC. This "seated scribe" recalls the importance of the educated elite in the court of an often-illiterate king. And this couple — a husband and wife — was also found in a tomb. It's nearly all art for the dead, sealed away until rediscovered in modern times.

[48, Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egyptian Museum, Cairo; British Museum, London] The art of Egypt revolved around death — preserving your body, your possessions, and your deeds for the afterlife. This woman died 3,000 years ago. Her entrails were placed here. Her body was placed in a wooden coffin like this, which was put into a larger stone sarcophagus like this, then placed inside a tomb, which was covered with magic spells and prayers. At the door of the tomb, a recognizable statue of the deceased served as a kind of safe harbor for the wandering soul on its journey to the afterlife. The art was simplified, yes, but the Egyptians created art that captured fleeting beauty and preserved it for eternity.

[49] Egyptian society was not prehistoric — they could write, and they artfully recorded their story with the help of Egyptian paper, called "papyrus." My guide, Marwa Abbas, explained.

[50, Marwa is one of several fine guides who work for Egypt and Beyond Tours]

Marwa: Papyrus is made out of the stem of the plant papyrus, which is hammered and then it is woven and then we press it in a pressing machine or stones to get those beautiful papers. These are the hieroglyphs, one of the most ancient written languages because of which we understood a lot about the civilization of ancient Egypt. So, these are beautiful paintings of the afterlife. Even in the afterlife they were trying to bribe the gods and deities in order to help them in the afterlife path. Even here in front of the judge Osiris is a big offering pile of lotus, onions, oxen leg, as well as breads and vegetables.

Rick: Anything to make the god happy.

Marwa: Anything to make him happy.

[51, mostly filmed in Cairo's National Museum] The pharaoh was considered a god. If your leader is a god, you question nothing. You obey the rules. Things stay the same. A remarkable thing about ancient Egyptian art, and society as a whole, was its stability. For 2,000 years — from 3000 to 1000 BC — relatively little changed, including their art.

[52, Akhenaten, c. 1350 BC, Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Stel of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, c. 1370 BC, Egyptian Museum, Berlin] Akhenaten was the one exception in a 2,000-year line of conformist pharaohs. Rather than the same predictable idealized features, Akhenaten had his own voluptuous looks — from a strangely curvaceous body to big, sensuous lips. He was considered history's first monotheist. Akhenaten replaced all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon with one all-powerful being, the sun god, whom he called "Aten." In reliefs we see Aten — the sun — shining down on everything. People were portrayed more realistically and intimately. Casual family scenes? Must be from the time of Akhenaten.

[53] The treasures of the pharaohs remind us that throughout history ambitious art only happens with patrons — powerful and rich people, generally with an agenda. And, until more modern times, that agenda was propaganda — to promote a political or religious idea; in this case to literally save your soul.

[54, Temple of Karnak, Luxor, Egypt] Most of the other surviving architecture of ancient Egypt is massive temples. Egyptian temples, like the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, were not a place of public worship, but a site of sacred mysteries, where priests and pharaohs huddled privately with the gods. Reliefs show pharaohs wooing the gods with rituals and offerings. In this sprawling holy complex the Great Court, the largest single area, was used only once a year for an elaborate festival feast celebrating fertility: fertility of the land, the people, and the kingdom.

[55, Great Hypostyle Hall, Temple of Amon-Re, 1280 BC, Karnak, Luxor, Egypt] The Great Hypostyle Hall, with over 100 columns, is one of the grandest religious structures ever built. Its forest of columns represents papyrus plants — bulging stems and flowering capitals, each elaborately carved and once brightly painted. The columns once supported a massive stone ceiling.

[56] You can measure the architectural sophistication of a society by the distance it was able to span between columns. This was the best they could do 3,000 years ago: The columns were fat and close together, with wide capitals — making the gap easier to span.

[57, Temple of Karnak, Luxor] Imagine what it took to build all this: They had to design it, quarry the stones, ship 'em, stack 'em, smooth 'em, carve 'em, paint 'em — all for the glory and favor of the gods. Consider the depth of the faith: This was not for the public; it was only to be seen by the royals, the priests, and the gods.

[58, Bust of Nefertiti, c. 1345 BC, Neues Museum, Berlin] History is a succession of seemingly invincible superpowers, which all eventually fall. And so, after 3,000 years, even the great civilization of Egypt faded. But its legacy lived on in Europe. Egypt had given the world its most developed society yet: a settled agrarian lifestyle, a written language to pass knowledge on to the next generation, government, religion, and enough leisure time to create sheer beauty. The utter grandiosity of Egypt's monuments inspired later civilizations to greatness, too. Their awe-inspiring obelisks — carved out of a single piece of granite thousands of years ago to symbolically connect earth with the gods — were eventually shipped to (or plundered by) Europe, gracing distant capitals like Paris, Istanbul, and Rome.

[59] From Egypt, we follow the rise of civilizations and their art like a torch passing north and west into the Greek world: to the Minoans on Crete, the Mycenaeans on the mainland, and finally to Athens.

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

[61, 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.

[62, 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!"

[63, 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.

[64, 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 culture.

[65, 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 cities, impressive tombs, and beautiful art.

[66, 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.

[67, The Lion Gate, 1250 BC, Mycenae, Greece] Its mighty Lion Gate would have been awe-inspiring, a symbol of power. Yes 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."

[68, Tholos Tomb, Mycenae, Greece] 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.

[69, artifacts from National Museum of Archaeology in 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.

[70, Vapheio Cups, 1st half of 15th century BC; Mask of "Agamemnon," 16th century BC, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] The Myceneans, whose gorgeous works of art were lovingly crafted, were the mysterious people the poet Homer wrote of in his legends of Greece's earliest origins — the Iliad and the Odyssey. Their artifacts match his description of Mycenae as a fabled city "rich in gold." The so-called "Mask of Agamemnon" was a death mask placed on the face of a dead king in his coffin. Objects from the royal tombs include finely decorated weapons and sheaths…and fine golden jewelry. These delicate golden cups are another example of impressive Mycenean artistry.

[71, 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.

[72, Parthenon Temple, mid-fifth century, 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.

[73] 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.

[74, 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.

[75, 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."

[76] 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.

[77] 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.

[78, ancient Greek pottery, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] And pottery — the pots and pans of the ancient world — also helped tell the story. Lots of it survived because this was terracotta — literally "baked earth" — it was fired clay, extremely hard and durable. The finer pottery was decorated — often with a black glaze on a reddish, lighter background. The red was the color of the clay left exposed. Painted pottery was an art form, telling stories of ancient Greece. Painters showed slices of life from everyday chores and rituals, to scenes of heroic deeds, to the mythic world of the gods.

[79, Dipylon Amphora, c. 760–750 BC, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] In the early Geometric period — named for its geometric patterns — bodies were little more than wasp-waisted stick figures. In this funeral procession, people showed their sadness by symbolically pulling out their hair. Over time the art evolved as bodies progressed from stiff and geometric to more relaxed and refined. Figures became more realistic and expressive, poses more active, and compositions more complex.

[80, 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.

[81, 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.

[82] 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."

[83] 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.

[84] 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.

[85] 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.

[86, 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.

[87] 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.

[88] Rick: And it clearly shows a mastery of the body; they understand the anatomy. And what time period was this from?

Niki: This is from the Classical times, specifically from 460 BC.

Rick: So if I was walking through Athens in 460 BC, what would it be like from an art point of view?

Niki: Athens in 460 BC would be like an open-air museum. Walking through the city you would see nothing else but beautiful art. Colorful marble statues, bronze statues, and temples everywhere you would look.

[89, Parthenon, Acropolis] 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.

[90, 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.

[91, Parthenon, mid-fifth century BC, 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.

[92] 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.

[93] 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 2,500-year-old architectural triumph.

[94] 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.

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

[96] By the way, much of the most prized art from places like Greece, the Middle East, and Egypt is now in the big museums of powerful countries like Britain, France, and Germany. It's often booty from military campaigns and plunder from archeological digs. That's why travelers to western Europe find themselves enjoying a bounty of ancient art from distant lands.

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

[98] 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.

[99] 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.

[100] These carved panels or "metopes," showed the legendary battle between enlightened Greeks and brutish centaurs. It's a free-for-all of hair-pulling, throat-grabbing, and head-wrenching. Ultimately, the Greeks got the upper hand, a metaphor for civilized Athens rising above its barbarian neighbors.

[101] 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.

[102, 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.

[103] 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.

[104] 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.

[105] 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.

[106] By the way, the style of temples evolved over time — and can be identified by the capitals: 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.

[107] 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.

[108, 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 — ncluding drama and performance arts.

[109, Ancient Greek theater at Epidaurus, 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.

[110, 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.

[111, 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."

[112, 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.

[113] 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.

[114, 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.

[115] 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.

[116, 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.

[117] 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

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

[119] 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.

[120, Winged Victory 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.

[121, 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.

[122, 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.

[123, 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.

[124] 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.

[125, Acropolis, Athens] The Greeks created a flourishing culture embraced far and wide, but an even more dynamic civilization would come to dominate Europe. That's ancient Rome and that's another story. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves, celebrating the joy of European art.