The Legacy - Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period - John Boardman

Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period - John Boardman (2016)

Chapter 8. The Legacy

Previous chapters have here and there dwelt on the unique character of Greek arts among those of other ancient cultures: not better, whatever that means, but different and apparently readily absorbed by non-Greeks. In the Archaic period Greek art was not that unlike other arts of the Near East and Egypt; it was significantly influential only to the west, in Italy. With the Classical revolution it appeared to offer more, and by the end of antiquity traces of the classical idiom could be detected from Britain to China, from Siberia to the Sudan. This is less the achievement of Greek artists (except in the west) than of what they had created, which appeared to evoke a ready response among peoples whose own arts were quite differently composed and orientated. Much might be explained by the realism which may communicate more readily than more stylized forms do to those unfamiliar with them; much by the sheer convenience of the decorative package offered in the form of well-defined architectural orders, a repertory of geometric and floral ornament, and an easily organized and formulaic narrative style. Although this chapter is not about Greek art itself, consideration of what it offered others may help us define better what its essential qualities may have been for Greeks also.


Greek artists were not evangelists. Others imposed their arts with their religion on the conquered or converted; not the Greeks, or at least not with the deliberation of Islam or Christianity. The physical presence of Greek artists in Italy certainly explains what happened there, and to a lesser degree this is true, for strictly limited periods, of what happened in Persia and farther east. More depended on travelling objects, and on copying and re-copying. Trade carried even cheap Greek goods like painted pottery (though not cheap to the purchaser) far beyond even the Mediterranean shores, while luxury objects travelled as far or further, by trade or gift. The Greeks were not always themselves the carriers, but the results were the same. Objects and copies do not inevitably carry with them the ideas and identifications which their makers intended, no museum labels or operating instructions, so the vestiges of Greek art in many places were subject to drastic reinterpretation, and in most instances what we observe is local artists borrowing what may already have been roughly familiar to them in their own arts, or something which they could use effectively in the service of their masters, priests or fellows.

In the Archaic period the East Greeks had foreign neighbours in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and were at home in other areas of the Near East and Egypt, where they had trading stations. In Asia Minor what they had to offer was mainly in matters of stone sculpture and architecture. By the later 6th century the Persian king Cyrus was recruiting East Greek and neighbouring masons (working in a common style) for his palace building in Persia itself, and we can easily trace evidence of Greek techniques and some forms in what became Persian (Achaemenid) court architecture and sculpture, especially in the Archaic disposition of dress [288] and in masonry techniques, beside other and more influential forms derived from other areas of the Persian Empire - Mesopotamia and Egypt. In parts of the empire in the 5th and 4th centuries Greco-Persian styles developed, blending Greek treatment and attitudes (more relaxed than the oriental) to eastern subjects. The tendency was towards the adoption of Greek pattern and towards more realism in natural, especially animal, forms.

287 Gilt silver rhyton. The shape is Eastern but the floral is Hellenistic and so is the realistic rendering of the stag, so this is Greek work for a Parthian master. 1st century BC. Height 27.4 cm. (Malibu 86.AM.753)

288 Relief at Persepolis. Compare [80, 81, 86] for the treatment of the stacked folds of dress

Alexander’s Macedonians and Greeks (whom he rather despised despite his alleged aim to avenge the Persian sack of Athens) eclipsed the Persian Empire in the 4th century, leading, in his successors’ kingdoms, to a further blend of Greek and oriental. He had marched to India, and in Bactria (north Afghanistan/Tadjikistan, around the River Oxus) an independent Greek kingdom developed. It had become isolated from the rest of the Greek world by the Parthians who had pushed back the Greeks from Persia but were still customers for Greek art [287]. The Bactrians pressed even into India (as Indo-Greeks), where they ruled and built, on into the 1st century BC, and where Greek art was influential in forming sculptural expression of Buddhism [289]. In the 2nd century AD classical influence was reinforced by a new flow of trade with the Mediterranean, sponsored by Rome but conducted by Greeks, mainly from Alexandria. The resultant blend of Greek and Indian arts created the basic idiom of Buddhist art which can be traced thereafter wherever Buddhist art was carried, to China, Korea and Japan. It appears in architectural pattern, in re-identifications of the images of Greek deities [290] and of Greek myth [291]. It was probably influential in the adoption of a figure type for the standing Buddha that clearly owes much both to Greek anthropomorphic gods and to Greek realism in the rendering of a relaxed standing figure [292].

289 Stone relief from the Peshawar area, N. Pakistan. The man at the centre and the women are dressed as Greeks, a style deriving from Greek presence in the area. This was from a Buddhist monument of the 1st century AD, forerunner of the rich series of Gandara reliefs. Height 14.5 cm. (Peshawar)

290 Clay statue of Vajrapani, guarding the Buddha. The figure is derived from the Lysippan type for Heracles, replacing the club with a thunderbolt. In a monastery at Hadda near Kabul. 2nd/3rd century AD?

291 Silver cup from Afghanistan? In the company of music-making monkeys of Eastern type a clubman attacks a man beside a boar, a group adapted from, perhaps, some Heraclean scene in Greek art. Early centuries AD. Diameter 14.5 cm. (St Petersburg)

292 Stone statue of the Buddha. The pose and gentle contrapposto with the clinging dress emphasizing the figure are Greek-inspired. 2nd century AD. (Once Mardan)

In Persia, the Sasanian successors to the Parthians enjoyed their own versions of Greek subjects but in a style of more obviously local inspiration. Islam effectively put an end to further classical influence, generally abjuring figure art, although it readily absorbed and developed classical floral patterns and rinceaux of flowers and leaves. We may look on them as typically Islamic ‘arabesques’, but their western derivation is clear.

We turn now to the north where, by about 600 BC, the East Greeks were busy planting colonies around the Black Sea. In the north their neighbours were nomad Scythians, whose own arts (the Animal Style) were expressed on non-monumental objects and with wondrously fluid and stylized animal figures as unlike Greek as they could be. Greek artists were soon making luxury objects for their neighbours, but generally on shapes already familiar to them, introducing their own view of the Scythians [190, 294]. Local arts effectively ignored the incompatible Greek style (and Greeks made some abortive attempts at a blend) but the market encouraged a phase in Greek art which could hardly have developed in the way it did elsewhere. To the west, in Thrace (south of the Danube), the story is different, and local artists soon became adept copyists of Greek style [293], sometimes in the service of their own religion, sometimes simply adopting Greek myth without apparent reinterpretation.

293 Gilt silver flask from Borovo in Bulgaria (Thrace). The figures are Greek but unusually occupied; the shape and work are probably local. About 300 BC. Height 18.2 cm. (Rousse)

294 Gilt silver amphora, made by Greeks but found in a Scythian grave at Chertomlyk, in the Ukraine. The shape is Greek but it is provided with sieve and spouts for the Scythian drink of fermented mare’s milk. The florals are early versions of the Hellenistic extravaganzas. On the shoulder are animal fights and scenes of Scythians with their horses. 4th century BC. Height 70 cm. (St Petersburg)

In the west the Greeks effectively colonized all the shores of South Italy and the eastern half of Sicily between the later 8th century and the 6th. It became Great Greece, Magna Graecia. The cities were rich, their rulers patrons of major architectural projects, but the impetus had to come from homeland artists and, with the best will in the world, it is difficult to call local styles other than provincial until the advanced Classical period when the luxury arts in particular became highly developed. Local populations were the losers, mainly kept at arm’s length, their arts roughly hellenized.

To the north, Etruria was a different proposition. A country of strong, independent cities, wealthy in metals, courted from the beginning by both Greeks and the Phoenicians who had settled in Sardinia and Carthage. The native arts were hitherto unpretentious, and what we call Etruscan art is entirely the product of the absorption of Greek art and artists, with a significant addition in early years from Phoenician art. Etruscans learned quickly and in some arts they excelled, especially the luxury arts. They used Greek art to figure their gods, and adopted Greek myth to a degree that suggests no serious reinterpretation in the interests of any local corpus of myth [295]. Some work is barely distinguishable from Greek, and enquiring whether the craftsmen were Greek or not is meaningless [296]. But much that was produced locally betrays a special quality that we must acknowledge to be Etruscan, for all that there is nothing in it not derived from Greek [297]. There is a tendency toward a more florid use of colour and less regard for proportion in figures and ornament. This is not provinciality but an expression of Etruscan taste, and they were a people whose ways of life and thought seem profoundly un-Greek.

295 Painting from the Tomba dei Tori at Tarquinia in Etruria. A version of the Greek scene of Achilles (left) ambushing the Trojan prince Troilos, with exotic florals. About 530 BC

296 Two warriors fight on an Etruscan carnelian scarab. About 460 BC. Height 14 cm. (Beverley Collection)

297 From an Etruscan red-figure vase, imitating Athenian style but with a scene which would have been improbable in Athens: Ganymede exposes himself to a kneeling Zeus, with thunderbolt, while a cynical Eros watches. 4th century BC. (Oxford 1917.4)

In the Hellenistic period Etruscan arts remain distinctive but also become more hellenized through contact with the Greeks to the south and employment of Greek artists [299]. By the end of the period both Etruria and Magna Graecia had been effectively absorbed by Rome. Early Rome was barely distinguishable in its arts from Etruria. Exposure to Greek art from the south meant less than the effect produced by the introduction to Rome of booty, in the form of metalwork, statuary and paintings, from conquered Greek cities in Italy, and soon from Greece itself. Temples had already acquired classical Greek orders, and now some acquired whole pediments taken from Greek sites [154]. There is record of the Greek architects and sculptors employed in the city. The old wax busts of ancestors were no match for the new Greek realism in portraiture and myth, and the Romans adopted the Greek idiom and mythology as completely as had the Etruscans, but choosing a Trojan ancestor, Aeneas. Private collections of Greek art developed, and this created a demand for more, readily supplied by Greek artists who tirelessly copied Greek originals [298], a major source for scholars and museums today. These artists had been schooled in the Hellenistic idiom but a taste both for versions of the Archaic and especially for the High Classical led to deliberate production of archaizing [278] and classicizing [300] works for the new patrons. ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ was born, and with it the art market, with little precedent except in the practices of a few Hellenistic princes. When the Emperor Augustus boasted that he had turned Rome from a city of brick into one of marble, he meant he had turned it into a Greek city, while his writers (who were Roman) very successfully adopted Greek epic and lyric forms to create far more original art forms than did the artists.

298 Fragmentary ancient plaster cast of a head from the original bronze group of the Tyrannicides which stood in Athens’ agora. This was part of a full cast kept at Baiae (Bay of Naples) as a model from which marble copies could be made for Roman customers, as [169]. Height 20 cm. (Baiae; copy in Oxford)

299 Head of Velia, wife of Arnth Velcha, from the Tomba del Orco at Tarquinia. She was shown reclining on a couch with her husband. 3rd century BC

300 Marble group of a youth and a woman, sometimes identified as Orestes and Electra. The types are Early Classical and Classical but the group is a creation of the 1st century BC. (Naples 6006)

The Roman Empire ensured that classical Greek style was dominant over a far wider area than Greek colonialism and trade had reached. In some areas, especially architecture, portraiture, true perspective painting, and the use of narrative techniques to depict recent history and not just myth, there were important developments, but classical standards of realism and proportion were relaxed and artists no longer sought either to counterfeit or improve on nature. The results are effective, often entertaining, seldom moving, at least to us, except to the degree that they express the Imperial achievement of Rome and the pax Romana. But they were influential enough through their accessibility of style and sheer quantity to guarantee the survival of classical art for centuries to come.


The oldest and most distinguished of the arts of the Mediterranean world was that of Egypt, impermeable to classicism. Egyptian artists adhered to a basic idiom which successfully expressed their views about life and especially the afterlife for some four millennia. They knew about realism, but recognized its limitations, and used life as a source, not a model, with brilliant results. Even domination by Persians, Greeks and Romans had little effect until the collapse of the old religion in the face of Christianity. This, in Coptic art, signalled at last the adoption of a version of classical art, even of its pagan mythology, a strange epilogue to the history of the most singular and distinctive of ancient arts.

The creation of an eastern Roman Empire and the rise of Byzantium saw what seems to be a deliberate withdrawal from classical semi-realistic forms to something more stylized and spiritual in intention, though classical themes and styles could still be expressed. This is a significant period for the legacy of classical art only inasmuch as the arts of Byzantium returned west, into Italy, and in their purest classical form. But in the east and in the Greek homeland, especially once the barrier of Islam (7th century) was reinforced by an Ottoman Empire (14th century), and despite the intrusion of Crusaders and Italian merchants, the heritage of classical art was almost extinguished.

The dissolution of the Roman Empire had left classical arts visible though less influential, and to the west and north Celtic and nomad arts, not unaffected by the classical, became more dominant. The Middle Ages were not darkly unclassical, but the heritage was intermittent in time and place. Classical literature was better understood than classical arts, and much illustration of it showed total unawareness of classical images; the figures of a Jupiter or Venus had to be recreated. Yet Romanesque art can carry much that is classical in ornament and occasionally in figure work, mainly derived from its appearance on monuments of the Roman period and not at all from Greek antiquity. The classical elements in sculpture and painting make them no more true descendants of Greek art than any Buddha, but they own the same source.

Classical art and architecture, though without their colour, were more visible in Italy than Greek Bronze Age art had been to Greeks in their Dark Age (Chapter 1). Some classical images had embedded themselves successfully in the arts of Christianity [301]. A renaissance of classical literary interests led to more careful observation of the physical heritage and how it related to literature. The architecture was drawn and copied, the sculpture collected. Popes and princes built palaces quite unlike anything classical but decorated with the classical orders. The nudity of the classical reliefs was copied both in statuary and painting for comparable classical subjects, but also for Biblical ones - whence Michelangelo’s David [302]. Assimilation of princes to gods and heroes was copied (though usually without the nudity). Leonardo’s anatomy drawings depend ultimately on Lysippus, Michelangelo’s Pietà on Hellenistic groups, while ancient technical achievements of bronze-casting and massive architecture were more closely observed and copied. Classical mythology was plundered for new subjects to render in a classical manner, and masterpieces of ancient artists known only from descriptions were recreated, such as Apelles’ famous painting of Calumny. Italian and European Renaissance art was totally unclassical in its conception, purpose and the visual experience it offered, but also totally dependent on classical models.

301 Early Christian art adopted the Greek sea-monster (ketos; see [254]) to represent Jonah’s whale. It appears here on a 12th-century AD ambo at Ravello

302 David by Michelangelo. Heroic classical nudity used for a Biblical subject (as before, by Donatello). AD 1501-4. Height 4.34 m. (Florence)

All this was essentially the product of observation and collecting in Italy. Further exploration of Greek lands led to new views about Greek architecture and art which, added to the Italian experience and encouraged by the travels of artists and patrons, led to a new, neo-Classical movement, strongest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Classical buildings were more closely copied now, in part or whole, guided by architects’ studies on the ground. In Britain the Greek Revival buildings are splendid precursors of many less imaginative essays in the use of the classical orders. The mode was followed no less enthusiastically in Europe and the United States [303], although it is as often the architecture of Rome as that of Greece that provided the model. Even the architecture of modernism and post-modernism makes repeated reference to the classical in detail or proportion. The only real competition has been native Gothic, which seems not to have survived into the second half of this century.

303 The Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia (1818-24). A purely Greek Classical façade, even to the cast iron railings

In the figure arts the classical style was adopted in attempts to recapture the idealized simplicity of ancient Greece that Winckelmann had tried to define. It was also borrowed by sculptors, painters and engravers to render new expressions of classical myth, including many a subject that no ancient artist cared for [304]. The results range from, to us, rather painful parodies of Greek art (then virtually unknown to artists except in Roman versions of sculpture or on Pompeian walls), to majestic recreations by a David or Ingres of epic and historical occasions. And soon archaeology intrudes to provide the realia for tableaux of daily life in Greece and Rome, far too good to be true but full of intelligently observed detail and a lot of gratuitous female nudity bringing us back to where our book started, dancing on the steps of the Parthenon [4]. Napoleon can emerge as a naked Greek god with Victory on his hand [305], like the Parthenos, or as a Heracles [306] receiving the submission of cities classically personified with the city-crowns of a Tyche [221], images determined in Greece more than two millennia before. And the Parthenon Frieze can be recruited to help celebrate his defeat [307]. The truths about classical art which were being revealed by the display of original works, such as the Parthenon Marbles, seem to have had little effect on this activity, although it was artists who first perceived their value. Either the challenge was too great or the need not apparent. In the last hundred years the spirit of classical art, as understood by artists and the general public rather than scholars, has provided an idiom for the arts of totalitarian states (Soviet or Nazi), for popular entertainment and advertising, for bogus attempts to regain classical innocence through imitation. ‘I suppose it is some sort of tribute to its reputation that Greek sculpture could so readily serve the noble, the sinister and the absurd’ (I quote myself). But much depends on views about Greek excellence which were brilliantly advertised by the Greeks themselves, and which a sober and sometimes resentful, revisionist modern world is beginning to question.

304 Neo-Classical engraved gems formerly in the Poniatowski Collection. Hermes (Mercury) rescues Lara from Hades; Leto turns the Lycian peasants into frogs. (Impressions 215, 149, Oxford)

305 Napoleon, by Antonio Canova. This marble version wasgiven to Lord Wellington by the British Government, and installed in his home, Apsley House, at Hyde Park Corner. AD 1803-06. Height 3.45 m

306 Bronze medallion showing Napoleon as Heracles receiving the submission of Vienna and Presbourg. AD 1805. (Oxford)

307 Hyde Park Gate, London, a classical design by Decimus Burton (1825), crowned by John Henning’s version of the Parthenon frieze, here celebrating victories in the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon [304] is next door

The camera has never quite eradicated the call for classical realism in western art, and in early days was subservient to it. Trompe l’oeil in two or three dimensions has a continuing appeal, whether realistic or ideal, and the western classical, ultimately Greek, tradition can even dictate the forms of protest adopted by modernists. The classical fragment continues to inspire; the nude has lost none of its potency. It remains the archetypal way in which western men and women depict themselves in important contexts, a very different attitude to that adopted by other cultures. It was chosen in the 16th century after Christ to represent the Fall of Man [309], and in the 20th century for his Apotheosis [310], both derived in pose and detail from that idealized view of humanity devised by the artists of Classical Greece.

308 ‘Artist moved to Despair by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments’. Drawing by Henry Fuseli (1778/9), a comment on the neo-Classical obsession of his day. (Zurich, Kunsthaus)

309 Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of the Fall of Man. Both figures derive from classical models, the Adam from the Apollo Belvedere [13]. AD 1504

310 The drawing on a gold-anodized aluminium plaque attached to the antenna of the spacecraft, Pioneer 10, launched in March 1972. The planetary system (below) and human figures are intended to indicate the source of the craft, its time of launching and the creatures which created it. It was expected to travel a distance of 3,000 light years in the next 100 million years, the time it might take for an alien civilization to discover it. Communication was lost in January 2003 at a distance of 7.5 billion miles from Earth