Art of Classical Antiquity (c.1000 BCE
- 450 CE)
Perhaps you have seen photographs of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis at Athens, or seen some of the Greek sculpture in the Louvre. Maybe you have heard about the endurance of Roman bridges or seen examples of famous Roman buildings like the Colosseum in Rome. In any event, all Greek art and Roman art was created during the period known as Classical Antiquity, which lasted about 1450 years - roughly from about 1000 BCE to 450 CE. Note: For later artists and styles inspired by the antique, please see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).
In fine art, the term "Antiquity" refers to the distant past, meaning the period between about 4,500 BCE (the beginnings of Western civilization) and about 450 CE (the beginning of the Middle Ages). The two principal civilizations of early Antiquity are those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Other cultures include those of Ancient Persia (from 3,500 BCE):
The more specific term "Classical Antiquity" is more common, however. This refers to the shorter period of classical civilization (c.1000 BCE - 450 CE), (other experts prefer the period 800 BCE - 450 CE), centered upon the cultures of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, as well as their prototypes (Aegean and Etruscan cultures) and derivatives (eg. the effect of Greek culture on Turkey, Persia, Central Asia, India and Egypt, a process known as Hellenism; Celtic culture, Early Christian culture).
Note: the separate term "antiquities" (nearly always used in the plural) refers to objects, buildings or artifacts made during Antiquity.
Early Antiquity is characterized by a number of different types of art, which include: (A) More sophisticated forms of ancient pottery and the invention of the potter's wheel. (B) Elaborate forms of religious art, exemplified by Egyptian pyramid architecture. (C) Narrative relief sculpture such as the upright stone or wooden slabs known as steles. (D) More intricate types of decorative art, either involving metalwork such as jewellery art and ornamental weaponry, plus architectural elements like mosaic art, and disciplines like ivory carving and pottery painting.
Antiquity begins in the fifth Millennium around 4,500 BCE. It is associated with the gradual beginnings of civilization in the West, as illustrated by: (1) the first "unified peoples" or cultures (Sumerian, Persian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite and Assyrian), as well as the first city states like Uruk in Mesopotamia. (2) The first hieroglyphic writing systems (in Sumer). (3) Increased social organization and cohesion, typically illustrated by highly labour-intensive projects involving monumental architecture, such as Ziggurats, Pyramids and other types of elaborate tombs. (4) The development of metallurgy, such as the use of copper.
Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) - "the land between the two rivers" (Tigris and Euphrates) - was the first cradle of civilization, followed by Egypt and its lands on either side of the Nile. The artistic traditions generated by these two cultures (notably Egyptian stone masonry) had a huge impact on succeeding cultures, notably those of Ancient Greece. See Mesopotamian Art (4500 BCE).
Mesopotamian civilization (which embraces Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite and Assyrian cultures) spread into Asia Minor, the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean, and throughout the Aegean to Crete, the Cyclades and Mycenae, where it flourished up until about 1100 BCE. Aegean art in general is characterized by innovative ceramic art, while Cretan or Minoan art is exemplified by Palace architecture at Knossos, Akrotiri and elsewhere, from the Protopalatial period (c.1700 BCE) and the Neopalatial period (c.1700-1425 BCE). Mycenean art is noted for its goldsmithing and jewellery, exemplified by the Vapheio Cups and gem-engraving (seals).
Meanwhile Egyptian art continued to evolve further south. The Egyptians were prolific builders, and their culture is characterized in particular by their monumental Egyptian Pyramid architecture (2650-1800 BCE). In addition, archeologists have discovered significant caches of precious objects in their royal tombs, testifying to their goldsmithing techniques (from 3,000 BCE), as well as collections of paintings and statuettes.
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Egyptian Architecture (3000 BCE - 200 CE)
From about 800 BCE, after a period of upheaval in the Eastern Mediterranean triggered by migrations from southern Europe and the Black Sea region, Ancient Greece began to experience a gradual rise in prosperity and power. Thus in 776, for instance, the first Olympic Games were held at Olympia, while around 750 we see evidence of the first Greek alphabet. During the Archaic era Ancient Greece was at the fringe of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and - although it sought its own voice - continued to borrow elements from other Middle Eastern countries, in art and also in religion and mythology. The Archaic period traditionally is said to end with the overthrow of the last tyrant of Athens and the beginning of Athenian Democracy (508 BCE). The defining art form of the Greek Archaic period is Greek pottery, notably in the Geometric, Oriental and Black-Figure styles. Sculpture during this period is represented by statues in stiff, hieratic poses, as exemplified by the standing nude youth (kouros), and the standing draped girl (kore).
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During this period of Classical Antiquity - known as "Classical Greek Culture" - we see the apogee of Greek Civilization, the foundation of all Western Civilization. Classical Greek culture was immensely influential on the Romans, who exported versions of it to all parts of their empire. As a result Ancient Greek ideas and values have had a major impact on the art and architecture of the modern world, notably during the period of Renaissance art in Europe, and later during the era of Neoclassical art and Neoclassical architecture in 18th Europe and 19th-century America. In fact, the humanist aesthetic and the high technical standards of Greek art continued to dominate the values of academic art in the West until the late 19th century.
The Classical Period, which opened with the military defeat of Persia, was dominated by Athens and the Delian League up until about 400 BCE. After this, Sparta dominated for a period, before hegemony shifted to Thebes and the Boeotian League. The final phase was dominated by the League of Corinth led by Macedon.
Classical Greek art is exemplified by the colossal chryselephantine sculpture of Athena Parthenos (447-5) created by Phidias (488-431 BCE), as well as a wide range of other bronze and marble statues including: Charioteer of Delphi (475); Discobolus (450) by Myron (active 480-444); Doryphorus (440) by Polykleitos (active 450-430); Aphrodite (Venus Genetrix) (5th Century) by Callimachus (active 432-408); Aphrodite of Knidos (350-40) by Praxiteles (active 375-335); The Farnese Hercules (350-300) by Lysippos (395-305); and Apollo Belvedere (330) by Leochares (active 340-320).
The Classical Period also witnessed numerous examples of Greek architecture, including (as well as the Parthenon): the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (468-456), the Temple of Hephaistos (449), the Temple of Athena Nike (427), and the Theatre at Delphi (400).
Note: Among the most famous items of classical Greek sculpture was the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia (466-435 BCE) - one of the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as compiled by the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon.
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The Hellenistic period of Classical Antiquity runs from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, until the defining victory of the Romans at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, and the subsequent conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt. It witnessed the expansion of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean Basin, and into Europe, Africa and Asia. In the West, for instance, Roman art was mostly based on Greek models, while in the East, the conquests of Alexander the Great led to centuries of Greek influence over Levantine, Central Asian and Indian cultures, resulting in forms of Greco-Buddhist art, with knock-on effects as far as Japan. While the period is often considered to be inferior to the brilliance of the Greek Classical era, Hellenism introduced a new, often edgy expressionism: see, for instance, the Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE). Greek Hellenistic art is exemplified by statues like the Venus de Milo (c.130-100 BCE, Louvre) and Laocoon and His Sons (42-20 BCE, Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums), and by the marble sculpture of the Pergamon Altar of Zeus (166-156 BCE).
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This period runs from the Roman defeat of the Egyptians to the establishment of Byzantium (Constantinople) by Constantine as the new Eastern capital of the Roman Empire in AD 330. Covering the entire era of Imperial Rome, it witnessed the imposition of the Pax Romana and the glorification of Rome, through the manufacture of tens of thousands of portrait busts of Roman emperors and other dignitaries. In cultural terms, this period is characterized above all by outstanding Roman architecture, such as the Pont Du Gard Aqueduct, Nimes, France (19 BCE); The Colosseum, Rome (72-80 CE); Arch of Titus, Rome (81 CE); Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain (100 CE); Baths of Trajan (104-109); Trajan's Bridge, Alcantara, Spain (105 CE); the Pantheon, Rome (128 CE); Baths of Diocletian, Rome (306 CE); Arch of Constantine, Rome (312 CE). In addition, it is well represented by narrative Roman relief sculpture, such as the carvings on: the Ara Pacis Augustae ("Altar of Augustan Peace"), Rome (c.13-9 BCE); Trajan's Column, Rome (106-113 CE); the Column of Antoninus Pius (161 CE, Campus Martius, Rome); and the Column of Marcus Aurelius (193 CE, Rome).
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The final period of Classical Antiquity covers the period of Christianization up until the death of Anthemius (420-472), the last Roman Emperor in the West (ruled 467 to 472). After the fall of Rome, Ravenna became the new Western capital of the Roman Empire, although the Empire itself was in terminal decline, as its frontiers were progressively overrun by Barbarians. In fact the continent of Europe would shortly experience four centuries of cultural stagnation in the period known as the Dark Ages. Cultural highlights of the Christian Period of Classical Antiquity include the glorious Ravenna Mosaics (from 400), as well as architectural masterpieces such as the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna (c.527-546) and the Chora Church, Constantinople (c.405). For more information, see: Early Christian Art (from 150) and Byzantine Christian Art (c.400-1200).
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ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ANCIENT ART