Hellenistic Art - Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period - John Boardman

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

Chapter 6. Hellenistic Art

The word Hellenistic translates the German Hellenismus. It was applied by scholars who thought that the period and its arts displayed a fusion of Greek and Oriental traditions. The major arts of the new age are deployed more for the satisfaction of men and kings, for the embellishment of private houses and palaces, than for the glory of the gods and the state. Dedications display an even greater degree of pride and propaganda rather than anonymous piety. In these respects at least the political and social climate of the day had a most profound effect on the arts. The change was brought about by the vision, brilliance and ruthlessness of one man who seems himself to have been almost indifferent to art though not to scholarship.

Alexander the Great was a Macedonian [220] - only by courtesy a Greek and, in the opinion of his political opponents in Athens, of a race better suited to the rearing of slaves than of generals or politicians. Yet he carried the boundaries of his kingdom by force of arms, more Macedonian than Greek, to beyond those of the Persian Empire which had once threatened to overwhelm Greece. The Empire that the Persians had created around them in some fifty years of expansion was undone by an outsider in ten. When Alexander died, in June 323 in Babylon, at the age of thirty-two, Greece itself had been forceably united, and the limits of Greek presence stretched to the Indus in the east, from the Black Sea to Egypt in the north and south. Only in the west was Greek rule still contained by the power of Carthage and Rome, and everywhere the Greek genius for internal disarray was apparent.

220 Portrait head of Alexander wearing the ram horns of Zeus Ammon, on an engraved gemstone of tourmaline. Probably cut in the east soon after Alexander’s death. The material is eastern and there is a tiny Indian inscription below the neck. Late 4th century BC. Width 2.4 cm. (Oxford 1892.1199)

After Alexander’s death his empire shrank and split, but the pattern of empire had been set, and the country of Greece itself was no longer the only, or even the main, centre of influence and wealth in the Greek world. Alexander’s successors created their own, smaller empires, centred in Macedon in the Greek peninsula, at Pergamum in Asia Minor, at Antioch in the Near East, and at Alexandria in Egypt.

The style, scale and content of Greek art had changed profoundly, in ways foreshadowed under Alexander. New dynastic centres promoted palace architecture, which is oriental in magnificence and of a sort not seen in Greece since Mycenae [14]. The new courts acted as foci for artists from all parts of the Greek world, and the new royal patronage had different demands from those of the city-states and private individuals who had hitherto sponsored major projects. The great works of statuary now commemorate events like major victories in Asia Minor over Gauls, they create new personifications [221], show new Greco-Egyptian deities, or they are portraits either of new royal families or honouring citizens who had deserved well of their fellows and masters. In Greece itself many of the new buildings are gifts of the Macedonian princes overseas, just as later they were to be the gifts of Roman emperors. In the years that were to pass before the Roman conquest of Greece and eventual establishment of the Roman Empire the Greek homeland was to play a much-reduced part in the story of Greek art. The cities and the great buildings, as those on Athens’ Acropolis, had been long established and there was no room for the magnificent new architectural and town-planning projects such as could be indulged in the many completely new foundations which were made in Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt. And even there, many of the sites of the older great cities were abandoned for new foundations in yet more commanding positions near at hand - as at Smyrna, Cnidus and the Alexandrias and Seleucias in the east.

221 Copy of the 3rd-century statue of Tyche, Good Fortune, by Eutychides. The city goddess of Antioch wears a castle crown, with the River Orontes swimming before her. The turret-crowned goddess is used as the personification of many Hellenistic cities. (Vatican)


The great city of Pergamum in Asia Minor and the buildings and sculptures commissioned by its Attalid kings could almost serve as texts for the study of all Hellenistic architecture and sculpture. It is not clear where the earlier town of Pergamum lay, but it was certainly not centred on the massive hill which rises some hundred metres above the plain beside the River Caicus, where the Hellenistic kings built their palaces. The crown of the windswept rock was laid out by successive kings as their capital. The view we have of it in drawings and models [222] is one never appreciated in antiquity, except by the birds, and we should rather put ourselves in the position of a visitor climbing to its walls, and through them on to a succession of terraces and colonnades reaching up and away. On the lowest stood an open, colonnaded market place (agora). The flanking stoai are versions of buildings which had come to play an important role in Greek civic life, with rows of shops behind and often on two storeys, providing not only a market, or offices, or hotel, but a shelter and meeting place (as for the Stoic philosophers of Athens). It was a Pergamene king who gave Athens’ agora a new stoa, now reconstructed as a museum [223]. Above Pergamum’s agora, in an open court, stood the Great Altar of Zeus, a monumental version of a type with a long history in East Greece - a broad flight of steps rising between projecting wings [224] to a high platform. Higher stood the Temple of Athena in its own colonnaded court, which gave entrance to the library (our word parchment derives from pergamena charta, Pergamene paper). At the top of the hill stood the palace courtyards, barracks, and later a temple built by the Roman Emperor Trajan. Cut deep in the hillside was the theatre, seating some ten thousand.

222 Restored model of the Acropolis at Pergamum. (Berlin)

223 Restored cut-away model of the Stoa of Attalus in the market place of Athens. Broad colonnaded walks (Doric and Ionic below; Ionic and Pergamene palm capitals above) in front of rows of shops and offices. 2nd century BC. Length 115 m; depth, with promenade, 20 m. (Agora)

224 The north wing of the Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamum. Beneath the Ionic colonnade runs a frieze showing the battle of gods and giants with many names inscribed. About 180 BC. Height of frieze 2.25 m. (Berlin)

The colossal temple building sponsored by the Hellenistic kings was anticipated by the rebuilding of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in the 4th century. At Sardis a new temple for Cybele is distinguished for the elaboration of its Ionic order, notably the capitals. At Didyma, near Miletus, the new temple is in effect a massive screen whose ruins still dominate the Turkish village beside it. Within its open court stood a separate small shrine. A few years ago faint drawings detected on its walls revealed how the architects gave graphic instructions from which the masons could carve the entasis (swelling) of columns and details of mouldings [225]. The outer columns, Ionic, stood nearly twenty metres high, many of them on elaborately carved, polygonal bases. Here too we meet sculptured heads and busts emerging from the volutes of the capitals, and more sculpture applied amid the usual floral mouldings [226]. The near-Baroque character of this decoration will be met again in the major sculpture of the period, and it was influential far to the east in Asia. The architect Hermogenes is associated with various of the new temples of Asia Minor in the 2nd century. He codified principles of architectural proportion which were still observed in early Imperial Rome.

225 Drawing of the inner court wall of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, with the architect’s plans (foreshortened top to bottom) for the design of the entasis of the columns

226 Decorative pilaster capitals and frieze from the wall top in the court of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. Griffins with lyres and florals based on acanthus and other patterns. 2nd century BC

Apart from the temples and other public buildings there are other major architectural works, including some quite new concepts executed still within the canons of the Classical orders. Civic architecture is accorded as much architectural elaboration as temples. Theatres received more architectural ornament, though not as much as in the Roman period. Less common are buildings like the Tower of the Winds at Athens - a clock-tower of the 1st century BC; and the great lighthouse (Pharos) at Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We know it only from descriptions and sketchy representations of it on minor works. It stood over one hundred and thirty metres high. The new city of Alexandria might tell us much of civic planning that was to influence the design of cities of the Roman Empire, but it can be recovered only in fragments.

The architecture of private houses is a little more enterprising than hitherto. They offer more opportunity for painted and mosaic decoration now and are larger and more sumptuously appointed, but they observe still the common Mediterranean introspective plan of rooms grouped round a courtyard, and there was not usually any exterior architectural order or decorated façade. The appearance of the streets in even the richer quarters of Hellenistic cities must have been as dull and unvaried as Pompeii. In a big and crowded city such as Alexandria we may suspect tenement-like buildings of the sort built by the Romans in Ostia. With the advent of the catapult and improved siege techniques fortification walls became more complex and massive, and heavily rusticated masonry is appreciated for its decorative effect as well as its reassuring solidity. Greeks were always good at walls.

Greek architects had hitherto avoided the arch, possibly for aesthetic reasons since they were aware of its value. It is occasionally used now in conspicuous positions, as for the market-gate at Priene or in fortifications, while barrel-vaulting is normal for the Macedonian chamber tombs, which also often have elaborate architectural façades, although all was buried in a tumulus. For monumental above-ground tomb buildings we have still to turn to the kingdoms of Asia Minor.


In the Hellenistic period we are happily able to deal still with a large proportion of original works of sculpture rather than Roman copies, but the range of surviving work is not great - so much was soon removed or overthrown - and we are bound to turn to copies for the full picture. Indeed, the practice of copying Classical works began in the Late Hellenistic period and became a leading characteristic of the late Hellenistic view of art. But classicizing was no major concern. The only step an artist could take beyond sheer idealized realism was to elaborate it for dramatic effect, and to dwell on the particular rather than the general, in other words, through expression of emotion and mood, and with a more lifelike treatment of portraiture, though not quite warts-and-all.

Pergamum, whose architecture has already occupied us, is also the source of some notable statuary, and, it seems, was the seat of an important and distinctive school. On the Great Altar of Zeus King Eumenes II (reigned 197-159 BC) had carved a colossal encircling frieze representing the battle of gods and giants [224, 227]. The action virtually seethes around the monument, with the figures climbing and crawling up the steps leading on to the sacrificial platform. The fullest dramatic use is made of swirling drapery, but the main force is lent by the vigorous carving of muscles and the writhing, tense bodies. If this alone were not enough to convey the horror of the struggle the faces too were carved with expressions of extreme anguish. This work shows the Pergamene style at its most intense and offers us the full measure of the difference between the approaches of the Hellenistic sculptor and that of his still Classical, 4th-century predecessor. The antecedents of this mature style can be traced at Pergamum in the 3rd-century dedications (by Attalus I; reigned 241-197 BC) celebrating the victories over Gauls. One series includes the group of a Gaul and his wife [228], and the famous Dying Gaul (long miscalled the Dying Gladiator). The other, dedicated in Athens, is of smaller figures of Greeks and Amazons, Athenians and Persians, gods and giants, and Gauls. Both are known only in copies. The dramatic qualities of the later Pergamum Altar are seen already here, together with studies in exhaustion or despair which are not so highly stressed, and so look back to the art of the 4th-century Athenian gravestones. These figures and groups are impeccably designed in the round, and offer many viewpoints. The closely related Laocoon group [229], now seen to be one of the most famous copies of an original work of the Hellenistic period, was designed for a single viewpoint and reproduces all the expressive modelling and anguish of features seen on the altar.

227 Detail from the frieze of the Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamum. A winged giant (Alkyoneus) is seized by the hair by Athena and attacked by a snake. About 180 BC. (Berlin)

228 Copy of the group showing a Gaul slaying himself and supporting the dead body of his wife from a larger group dedicated at Pergamum by Attalus I in the late 3rd century BC. The Gauls (Celts) had invaded Asia Minor; they fought naked, a point observed and approved by the Greeks. (Rome, Terme)

229 Laocoon, priest of Troy, with his two sons struggling against the serpents sent by Apollo. The group is that seen by Pliny who names the three Rhodian artists. These are now known to be copyists of the 1st century BC, here copying an original of the 3rd/2nd century BC. Height 2.4 m. (Vatican 1059)

Introducing Hellenistic sculpture with the Pergamene style highlights the contrast with what went before, but does little justice to the continuing Classical tradition in the treatment of features and drapery which can be observed in the work of other cities [230]. This seems left to the schools of Alexandria, Rhodes and mainland Greece, but definition of the styles of these regional schools is not at all clear-cut. The all-round viewpoints for free-standing statues, which Lysippus had introduced, were achieved by the design of dress with folds running counter to folds, even seen through upper garments as though they were transparent, and by twisting poses which seem to force the spectator to move around the statue. Drapery can even be used to express mood, from the swirling folds of fighting groups, or even flying figures [231], to the quiet foldless dress of more reflective subjects, like the boy from Tralles [232]. Sheer size was appreciated as never before, and new skills in bronze-casting made possible works like the colossal statue of Apollo at Rhodes (the Colossus), thirty metres high. It fell in an earthquake, just over fifty years after its erection in the early 3rd century. More than a millennium later it took a train of one thousand camels to carry off the scrap metal.

230 Figures of an Athenian couple, Cleopatra and Dioscurides, from their house on Delos. 138/7 BC. Height 1.67 m

231 The Victory from Samothrace (a north Aegean island) alighting on the forepart of a ship. She was set in the upper basin of a fountain to commemorate a sea victory. Early 2nd century BC. Height 2.45 m. (Louvre MA 2369)

232 Statue of a boy dressed in a short cloak, perhaps an athlete (boxer?; his ears are bruised) leaning against one of the track turning-posts. From Tralles in Caria. 2nd century BC (perhaps a copy). Height 1.47 m. (Istanbul 542)

Nude studies of male figures remained the norm for heroes, gods, and even distinguished mortals, but the female nude had also become a very common subject. Praxiteles’ Aphrodite was famous enough, but the Hellenistic figures with their slim and sloping shoulders, tiny breasts and swelling hips are almost aggressively feminine. The softer modelling, blurring details, such as seems to have been introduced by Praxiteles, is carried further in these new studies of femininity. The Cnidian Aphrodite was often copied but there are new poses now, notably of the goddess crouching at her bath [233]. In the Venus de Milo [234], the new, restless spiral composition is expressed vividly in a variant on the old pose. The hermaphrodite figures offer a mean between the current fashions in male and female physique [235, 236].

233 Roman copy of a Greek 3rd/2nd-century BC statue of a crouching Aphrodite. (London, British Museum, Gift of Her Majesty the Queen)

234 The Venus de Milo. 2nd-century BC version of the type devised in the 4th century, with a more relaxed, twisting pose. She was found on Melos in 1820. Height 1.8 m. (Louvre 399/400)

235 Copy of a 3rd/2nd-century BC group showing an Hermaphrodite rebuffing a satyr. Height 91 cm. (Dresden)

236 Copy by Bernini (17th century) of a 3rd/2nd-century BC Greek statue of a sleeping Hermaphrodite. (Louvre, Paris)

We have so far dealt mainly with single-figure studies but far more characteristic of the age are the groups - narrative groups we might almost call them - which tell a story and study the emotions of the protagonists. The Gauls and Laocoon [228, 229] are examples. A massive Hellenistic group showing Odysseus and his companions blinding the giant Polyphemos was copied for the grotto dining room of a Roman villa at Sperlonga [237]. The silen Marsyas, bound to a tree, waits helplessly to be flayed by the brutish slave who sharpens his knife, watched by a bored Apollo; rough Pan teaches young Olympus how to play his pipes; a hermaphrodite wriggles free from a satyr [235]. The realism of expression and emotion seen in Pergamene sculpture has its counterpart in the characterization of over-developed athleticism [238], wasting old age (the drunken woman in Munich or the Louvre fisherman) and - at last - good child studies (the boy and goose, Erotes). The sleeping satyr in Munich is a fine study of abandon and exhaustion [239]. Its massive musculature, like that of the famous Belvedere torso, reminds us of Michelangelo, and both these works were indeed known to Renaissance sculptors. The satyr reminds us too of the great popularity now of a wide variety of Dionysiac subjects in all media.

237 Copy of a group of about 200 BC showing the blinding of Polyphemos, made in the 1st century BC and later placed in a grotto dining room at Sperlonga (south of Rome). Width of whole group about 9 m. (Sperlonga)

238 Bronze statue of a seated boxer. The brutalized features, bruised ears and broken nose are carefully observed. Over lifesize. (Rome, Terme 1055)

239 The Barberini Faun, a sleeping satyr. Copy of a statue of about 200 BC; found in the Castel S. Angelo in Rome and partially restored by Bernini. Height 2.1 m. (Munich 218)

Portraiture is very much in the spirit of the age, heralded by Alexander’s appointment of Lysippus as official Court Artist. Portraits of poets, philosophers and statesmen remain largely character studies [240]. The treatment of the whole figure plays its part in the characterization, even of contemporaries - the statesman Demosthenes in pensive mood [241], obese seated philosophers, surly extrovert athletic rulers [242]. We do not know who the figure in [243] was, but may doubt whether he often appeared naked in public. The unruly hair, heavy furrowed brow and disdainful mouth are abetted by the massive and proudly displayed body in a study of princely arrogance. This attention to the character of the sitter, making a portrait a compromise between realism and an idealized study of statesmanship or intellectual or physical power is the hallmark of the Greek portrait [244]; beside them many portraits of the Roman period are more like effigies.

240 Copy of a 3rd-century BC portrait of the philosopher Epicurus. Height 40.5 cm. (New York 1911.90)

241 Copy of the portrait statue of the Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes, made by Polyeuktos about 280 BC (forty years after Demosthenes’ death) to stand in the Athenian agora. The hands were clasped. Height 2.07 m. (Vatican)

242 Bronze portrait head (of Philip IV of Macdeon?) wearing a brimmed hat (kausia), 3rd/2nd century BC. Found in the sea. (Kalymnos Museum)

243 Bronze portrait statue of a Hellenistic prince. 2nd century BC. Lifesize. (Rome, Terme 1049)

244 Bronze portrait statue of a man from Delos. About 100 BC. Height 33 cm. (Athens 14612)

The fine series of Athenian gravestones had been stopped by an anti-luxury decree passed by Demetrius of Phaleron, who governed Athens between 317 and 307 BC. We look now rather to marble sarcophagi, generally made in the eastern Hellenistic kingdoms, on which whole friezes or single figures are shown in an architectural setting. The genre seems to begin in the 5th century with works commissioned from Greek artists by the Phoenician kings of Sidon, still under the Persian Empire. The latest of these, the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus [245], keeps close to the architectural reliefs of earlier years. The tradition of the Classical gravestone with relief figures is continued only in East Greece, but there are many new varieties of votive relief being made [246], including a common type showing the deity, or more often hero, approached by a family or worshippers shown on a smaller scale. Some of these reliefs admit landscape elements and attempts at perspective by reducing the height of figures - features borrowed, not usually with great success, from contemporary painting [247]. The arabesques which decorate architectural members and smaller marble objects like funeral vases, and the friezes of heavy floral swags on altars and walls represent the last stage in the development of the old Orientalizing florals, but the 4th century had already introduced new floral fantasies which were to be influential.

245 The Alexander Sarcophagus from the Phoenician royal cemetery at Sidon. The sides are decorated with hunting scenes, including the figure of Alexander, and a fight of Greeks and Persians (shown here). Colours are unusually well preserved. About 315 BC. Height 1.95 m. (Istanbul 370)

246 Votive relief made by Archelaos of Priene, showing the deification of Homer, being crowned below left, greeted by actors and others. Above are the Muses and other gods; at the right a statue of a poet, possibly Apollonius, writer of the Argonautica. 2nd century BC. Height 1.18 m. (London 1819,0812.1)

247 Votive relief showing a sacrifice in a rural shrine. A hero and his consort at the right, before an altar approached by worshippers. The tree supports an awning; beside it statues of Apollo and Artemis on a pillar. From near Corinth. 3rd century BC. Height 61 cm. (Munich 206)


The small clay and bronze figures of the Hellenistic period offer many ambitious and original compositions. In clay the use of the mould, or of several moulds combined, lent greater variety to what had become a rather repetitive and trivial art form. The model girls of the so-called Tanagra figurines are deliberate essays in prettiness with their mannered pose and coy charm [248]. It is little wonder that they won immense popularity in the last century and that they were widely (and skilfully) forged or mocked up, with their bright colours restored to them, for the collector’s cabinet. They are named after the site in Boeotia where they were first found, but the style is common to all parts of the Greek world, with important schools in South Italy and Asia Minor. The South Italian schools had always been active and original centres for the production of terracotta figures and plaques. In Asia Minor, though, it is the example of the new Hellenistic capitals and their art which probably inspired the new activity. One important class of figurines of gilded clay, well known in examples from Smyrna, was inspired by types of major sculpture [249]. But these, and many bronze statuettes, whether of deities or mortals [250, 251], are often more than just reduced versions of larger works.

248 Clay figure of a woman from Boeotia (Tanagra). Her cloak is coloured blue. Height 32 cm. (Louvre S 1633bis)

249 Gilt clay head from a statuette. From Smyrna. Height 12 cm. (Oxford 1911.8)

250 Bronze statuette of a god, probably Poseidon striking with his trident. The eyeballs were inlaid silver, the nipples copper. 2nd century BC. Height 25.5 cm. (Louvre MND 2014)

251 Bronze statuette of a naked woman from Verroia in Macedonia. 3rd century BC. Height 25.5 cm. (Munich 3669)

The realism of major sculpture is reflected in miniature in the studies of the grotesque or deformed [252], and the semi-portrait studies of non-Greeks. Alexandria was a meeting-place of the races, and the Macedonian conquests in the East had offered the artists even more opportunity to reflect on the un-Greekness of the foreigner, in looks at least. Hellenistic (Ptolemaic) Egypt has yielded engaging clay studies of typically foreign faces - Scythians, Persians, Semites, Indians, Africans. The African head had occupied the Greek artist in the Archaic period, and he continued to use ‘negroid’ features to depict any African [202]. There were no doubt more dark-skinned slaves in Hellenistic Greece, and we find more sympathetic treatment of black slaves and entertainers in the clay figurines and bronzes of the period [253].

252 Clay mask of a grotesque head from Tarentum. 2nd century BC. Height 26.5 cm. (Taranto 20068)

253 Bronze statuette of an African boy singing to the music of an instrument now missing from his right hand. 2nd century BC. Height 20.2 cm. (Paris, BN 1009)


Decorative metalwork was applied to the same objects as hitherto: vases, mirrors, boxes [254]. Precious metals suited kings, and the Eastern victories and loot had provided new sources. Relief cups, including animal-head vases, are well represented. Shapes betray an element of Eastern taste in the preference for round-bottomed cups decorated with a wide range of floral ornament [255]. The cups and dishes continued to carry figure scenes in high relief [256] and the line is hard to draw in date and style between those made in the late Hellenistic cities of Greece and those answering the demands of the new rulers in Rome and its provinces. All were likely to be the work of Greeks, at any rate. South Italy was a busy source, and others served princes on the periphery of the Greek world, in Thrace [257] and Scythia.

254 Lid of a gilt silver box, with a nymph riding a sea-monster (ketos), found near Tarentum. Late 2nd century BC. Diameter 10 cm. (Taranto 22429)

255 Silver cup decorated with florals in high relief. 2nd century BC. Height 7.6 cm. (Toledo 75.11)

256 Silver dish with relief scene of a satyr attacking a nymph at a fountain. 2nd century BC. Diameter 15.6 cm. (Toledo)

257 Gold amphora with figures of centaurs as handles, and an unidentified attack shown on the body. The shape derives from Persian forms, the subjects are Greek. From a rich find of gold vessels at Panagurishte in Bulgaria. Probably 3rd century BC. Height 29 cm. (Plovdiv)

In jewellery colour became more important, and inlays in glass, enamel or semi-precious stones far more common. Our main sources are the princely tombs of north Greece and south Russia. A new belt form, with a false clasp like a reef-knot, became a popular feature [258], and the new earrings were plump crescents with human or animal heads as terminals. Gold funeral wreaths reproduced the forms of oak and laurel leaves with startling virtuosity [259]. Finger-rings acquired big round bezels and bulky hoops but with diminished figure intaglios.

258 Gold diadem from Thessaly with a ‘Heracles knot’ at the centre, inlaid with garnets. 2nd century BC. Length 51 cm. (Athens, Benaki)

259 Gold oak wreath from the Dardanelles. There is a cicada among the leaves at either side, and a bee on the clasp, centre below. 350-300 BC. Diameter 23 cm. (London 1908,0414.1)


The art of the vase painter went into a rapid decline at the end of the 4th century BC, but the more simply decorated wares persisted in the Greek East, and some classes, like the Hadra funeral vases found in Egypt (but whose source was in Crete), offer a lively variety of floral and animal decoration [260]. Only among some of the Italian schools do we find a polychrome style of painting [261], usually over the black paint covering the vase, which approximates to the new realistic styles of major painting, with their greater command of colour, shading and highlights [262]. Plain black vases, sometimes metallic in their shapes and in the bright gloss of the paint, had been increasingly popular in the 4th century. The paint, often miscalled a glaze, is in fact a clay preparation which will fire to a permanent black gloss if the atmosphere of the kiln is changed from oxidizing to reducing, and then back again. The technique of this painting has only in recent years been rediscovered. Wedgwood sought it without success, then turned to imitating the easier dull black bucchero of Etruria, and making relief vases, the technique of which is also Hellenistic in origin.

260 A clay hydria from Arsinoe in Cyprus, of a type most familiar in the Ptolemaic (Hadra) cemeteries of Alexandria. 3rd century BC. Height 37.5 cm. (Brussels A 13)

261 Detail of a plate showing a battle elephant, rendered in added colour, not red figure. From Capena. 3rd century BC. Diameter 29.5 cm. (Rome, Villa Giulia 23949)

262 Interior of a cup from Vulci showing a boy relaxing with a wine flask, his throwing-stick at his knee. The drawing, with shading and high lights, reflects major painting. Made in Etruria (the Hesse Group). 3rd century BC. (von Hessen Coll.)

Where before the black vases carried slight impressed or applied decoration there may now be white-painted floral patterns, as on the Gnathia vases from Italy, or scrolls picked out in low applied relief (West Slope Ware). This was a style of decoration which must have been copied directly from the more expensive metal vases, and an even more direct influence from this source can be seen in the so-called Megarian Bowls (but made in all parts of the Greek world). These are hemispherical cups, made in a mould and painted black or brown, with low-relief patterns of florals and figures [263], very similar to metal and glazed cups found in Egypt. Rarely, on the Homeric Bowls, we see elaborately composed mythological scenes. The decoration was generally composed only in applied vignettes of figures or groups in floral settings. The type and technique were copied in the Roman period on the Arretine and Samian bowls of red ware.

263 Clay relief bowl (so-called Megarian). Applied relief motifs include goats at a crater, a Triton and a nymph riding a lion. 2nd century BC. Height 9 cm. (London 1902,1218.1)


In the Archaic and Classical periods Eastern and Egyptian techniques were practised in Greece to produce opaque, coloured glass, used for small flasks or decorative inlays, moulded, cut or built up in coils. Only towards the end of the Hellenistic period were the techniques of blowing glass learned. It becomes a luxury craft with gilt [264] or cut decoration and considerable colour variety, but the full potential is only achieved under Rome.

264 Clear glass bowl with a gold leaf decoration of florals; compare the cloth [199]. From Canosa in South Italy. About 200 BC. Height 11.4 cm. (London 1871,0518.1)

Moulded glass intaglios are found also, set in metal finger-rings. The earlier types of engraved gems, set in swivels or worn as pendants, gave place wholly now to stones set in rings. The subjects tended to be less varied: portraits, studies of deities, standing figures in relaxed poses [265] - far less narrative; but the high technical skills are no less apparent. Later there was brisker production of smaller ringstones, often with trivial subjects, of a type which goes on being made through the early Roman period. At the same time a new type of gem-cutting was practised - that of the cameo. Stones with multi-coloured layers (onyx, readily imitated in glass) were cut in relief so that different colours are picked out in different strata, generally pale figures against a dark background. The cameos were set in rings or pendants. On a larger scale the same technique was used in the great Tazza Farnese [266], probably a treasure of the Alexandrian court. In the cognate art of the engraver of coin dies it was also in the field of portraiture that the masterpieces are found [267]. Where before the idealized features of a god or local deity graced a city’s coins, there are now portrait heads of princes and their families - a tacit comment on the decline of the city-state and forms of democracy - and a fashion which has persisted, even for many republics, to the present day.

265 Cornelian ringstone. Alexander the Great. By Neisos. 3rd century BC. Height 3 cm. (St Petersburg, Hermitage P-20807)

266 The Tazza Farnese. A cameo-cut dish of banded sardonyx, probably made for a Ptolemaic prince, with an unexplained allegorical subject in an Egyptian setting (notice the sphinx, below). 1st century BC. Diameter 20 cm. (Naples 27611)

267 Silver coin with portrait head of Arsinoe III of Egypt (died about 204 BC)


Original evidence for wall-painting is as scanty as it was for earlier periods, and what has survived in the way of major painting is usually second rate, or, we may suspect, untypical. Again, many of the wall-paintings in Roman houses must reflect Hellenistic originals, but the nearest we come to their sure handling of light and shade is on a few painted tombstones from the Hellenistic cemetery at Pagasai (modern Volo), or in the painting which decorated the interiors and sometimes the façades of the Macedonian chamber tombs [268, cf. 197-98]. Here we can recognize a style of painting which might pass as modern beside the earlier Classical outline-drawn figures with their flat washes and rudimentary indications of depth. It makes us yet more conscious of our loss of Classical originals.

268 The figure of a Judge of the Dead, Rhadamanthys, painted on the façade of a Macedonian tomb at Lefkadia. Other figures were of another Judge, Hermes and the dead man. Early 3rd century BC. Height of figure about 1.1 m

There are other sources from which we may get some idea of the appearance of ancient painting. There is polychrome painting on some clay vases of South Italy and Sicily, while some gravestones in Chios [269] and Boeotia continue an earlier, Classical tradition, with designs outlined on the polished stone against a roughened background. Colour must certainly have been applied to these stones, though it is still not clear with what effect. We find on them hunting scenes and some engaging still life.

269 Gravestone of Metrodorus from Chios. The top frieze has musical sirens; the next a fight with centaurs; the bottom, chariots. In the main panel an athlete’s strigil, sponge and flask hang beside a column supporting a prize vase; at the left his clothes hang over another column. The incised figures stand out against the roughened background. 3rd century BC. Height 89.5 cm. (Berlin 766A)

The school of Sicyonian painters had been influential, and to the 4th-century Pausias might be attributed the invention of intricate floral and leaf patterns which became an important element of decoration in all media [as 199, 216, 255]. It is perhaps no accident that Sicyon was also Lysippus’ hometown. The Ionian Apelles had studied at Sicyon. He was Alexander’s Court Painter, famous for his portraits and Aphrodites. Of his work, and that of his fellows, who are often associated with famous sculptors of the day, we can only guess from the accounts and descriptions of ancient authors. But we may be sure that it was they who evolved the brilliant techniques which inform the Pompeian paintings. One major innovation, presaged in the frieze that decorated the tomb of Alexander’s father at Vergina in the mid-4th century [198], is the use of landscape for the setting of figures in action. At Vergina it was the forest setting for a hunt, elsewhere it was no more than a garden or sanctuary setting such as we see also on reliefs. Eventually the landscape can dominate the figures though we have to judge this from Roman period copies in paint or mosaic of presumed Hellenistic originals [270]. Before this Greek pictorial art displayed very little sense of composition in space, especially when compared with the arts of Egypt and the East. Appreciation of the natural, non-animal world, came late. The prime interest was in the presentation and interaction of live forms and much was dictated by the field to be decorated - panel, frieze or tondo - and by purpose, which was generally best served by figures, not settings.

270 Painting from a house on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. A copy of a late Hellenistic painting with a landscape setting for a scene from the Odyssey: Laestrygonians attack Odysseus’ men. Height 1.16 m. (Vatican)

Mosaic copies may also bring us close to other types of Hellenistic painting. In the capital of Alexander’s successors in Macedon, at Pella, there are mosaics in the old style, with coloured pebbles, and the linear quality of the figures is enhanced by the lead and clay strips outlining some of them [272]. Battle paintings had been popular since Polygnotus’ and Mikon’s Marathon at Athens in the 5th century, and Euphranor’s Mantinea in the 4th. The Alexander Mosaic at Pompeii [271] had translated a wall painting into a floor mosaic. It depicts Alexander’s victory at Issus, the young king storming against the Persian Darius, already being cut off by the Macedonians and Greeks whose long spears are seen passing across the background. Bold foreshortening and skilful use of highlights and reflection lend depth to the complicated but brilliantly lucid composition. In this mosaic the tiny cubes (tesserae) are of stone and coloured glass, a technique probably introduced in the 3rd century. The original painting may have been of the late 4th century. The limitations of this technique and the few colours used do not conceal the promise these works hold of later achievements in painting and mosaic.

271 The Alexander Mosaic, made to be placed in a house at Pompeii about 100 BC, copying a Greek painting of about 300 BC. Alexander is charging the Persian king Darius at the Battle of Issus. Height of detail about 60 cm. (Naples)

272 Pebble mosaic from Pella in Macedonia, Alexander’s capital. A stag hunt, signed by the artist Gnosis, probably copying a painting. The painter Apelles had visited and worked in Pella. About 300 BC. Height 3.1 m. (Pella)

‘Then art stopped’, said the Roman author Pliny, but he was referring to the beginning of the Hellenistic period and had something else in mind. Greek art did not stop. Once Greece fell within the Roman Empire Greek artists worked for Romans in Italy, and were no less busy in the old Hellenistic kingdoms and Greece itself. Hellenistic flair ended in styles nostalgic for the Classical past, and under Rome, east or west, novelty no longer lay in design but in the uses to which versions of the basic classical style might be put. If no glimmer of the Classical spirit seemed to have survived, this was as much the fault of Greek artists as of Roman patrons. There was to be much still essentially Greek in inspiration, and certainly appearance, throughout the Empire and beyond it, but an account of this is not for this book.