Cultures & Traditions

The Greeks

The Greeks, a small group of people living around the Aegean Sea, created art styles that came to dominate later European culture. By 600 B.C.E, the beginning of the great age of Greece, they called themselves Hellenes, meaning "people who speak the Greek language." They were not unified as a nation but were bound together by language, religion, and common cultural values. Politically, they lived in small independent city-states (the polis). These cities competed with each other in athletic games, trade, and warfare.

One of the most lasting of these shared values was the idea of the hero. In Greek belief, the gods were immortal, while mortals were short-lived. A hero was an outstanding man whose death was glorious. The prototype for Greek heroes was Achilles, the leading Greek warrior in Homer's epic The Iliad. Achilles had chosen a short, glorious life over a long, inglorious one. His great fame was his immortality, illustrated on the DMA's black figure amphora (1965.29.M). The celebration of the hero can be seen on a larger scale in the DMA's funerary sculpture of a young man (1996.26). The death of the young man likely brought honor and fame to his family, especially if he died in battle. Ares, the macho god of war, was the divine prototype for this youthful prowess.

Instead of gods or kings, the ancient Greeks focused on the private diversions of heroic warriors. Supremely self-aware and self-confident, their art was centered in the material world, but also conformed to strict ideals of beauty and mathematical concepts of design, paralleling the Greek philosophers' search for the human values of truth, virtue, and harmony. Their exaltation of humanity as the "measure of all things" remains one of the fundamental tenets of Western civilization. Their humanistic worldview led to the creation of the concept of democracy (rule by the demos, the people) and groundbreaking contributions in the fields of art, literature, and science.

Drawn from

  • Anne Bromberg, DMA unpublished material, Gallery text, Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Classical Galleries, transcribed September 20, 2016.
  • Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, Volume 1, Fourth edition, (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 101.