Ancient Greek Art, Painting and Crafts

Home | Category: Art and Architecture


20120222-Peleus_Atalante_Staatliche 1.jpg
vase with Greek athlete
Art from ancient Greece and Rome is often called classical art. This is a reference to the fact that the art was not only beautiful and of high quality but that it came from a Golden Age in the past and was passed down to us today. Greek art influenced Roman art and both of them were an inspiration for the Renaissance

The Greeks have been described as idealistic, imaginative and spiritual while the Romans were slighted for being too closely bound to the world they saw in front of them. The Greeks produced the Olympics and great works of art while the Romans devised gladiator contests and copied Greek art. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn” , John Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, “that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Greece reached its zenith during the Golden Age of Athens (457 B.C. to 430 B.C.) when great temples were built in Athens and Olympia and they were decorated with wonderful sculptures and reliefs. Hellenistic arts imitated life realistically, especially in sculpture and literature.

Greek artists identified themselves for the first time in the eight century B.C., when pottery painting contained statements such as "Ergotimos made me" and "Kletis painted me."

Fortunately the artistic production of the ancient Greeks was extensive enough that even though most of it has now been lost enough remains in form of originals, fragments and copies that we are able to appreciate it not only in terms of quantity but its quality. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

Minoan and Mycenaean Art, See Minoans and Mycenaeans Under History

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ancient Greek View of Art as a Trade

5th century BC psykter
According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Modern perspectives on what constitutes art and our clear distinctions between artists and craftspeople differ from the practice in ancient Greece. The Greeks did not have muses charged with responsibility for art and sculpture as they did for literature, music and dance. Indeed they did not have a word for “art” in their language using the word tekhne which translates as “craft”. Sculpture, pottery, metalwork and the creation of frescoes, mosaics and wall paintings fell into the realm of tekhne. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“This attitude was often reflected in Greek wage scales and we see in accounting records where the architect of a major temple and a stonemason working on the same structure received essentially equivalent wages. That is not to say that their craftsmen weren’t held in high regard and that there wasn’t a generally recognized distinction between journeymen artisans and those whose skills had earned them greater prestige and esteem. Alexander, the Great insisted that busts of him be executed only by the renowned sculptor Lycippus and that paintings of him (e.g. Alexander, with thunderbolt) be done by the equally-famous Apelles. |

“Greeks with aristocratic roots looked upon any kind of manual labour with distaste. That certainly included sculpture, pottery and metalwork. Aristotle, enlightened in many ways, wrote that the title of “citizen” should be withheld from all those who earned their living with their hands, that it wasn’t possible to practice the civic virtues as a salaried worker. Others who expressed a similar view included Plato and Xenophon (but not Socrates who saw merit in honest labour and who practiced what he preached.)

“The law-giver Solon notes that no well-bred young man could possibly want to be a sculptor and the pejorative word banausos was used to designate workers in at least some of the craft areas. This Athenian attitude, in a city admired for its art and beauty, is paradoxical and was not universal throughout ancient Greece. In many cities, particularly those with an industrial or commercial focus, the word cheironax was used to denote “master craftsmen” and these people were accorded honour and respect. |

Nudes in Greco-Roman Art

Apollo Belvedere

Jean Sorabella wrote for the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The nude first became significant in the art of ancient Greece, where athletic competitions at religious festivals celebrated the human body, particularly the male, in an unparalleled way. The athletes in these contests competed in the nude, and the Greeks considered them embodiments of all that was best in humanity. It was thus perfectly natural for the Greeks to associate the male nude form with triumph, glory, and even moral excellence, values which seem immanent in the magnificent nudes of Greek sculpture (25.78.56). Images of naked athletes stood as offerings in sanctuaries, while athletic-looking nudes portrayed the gods and heroes of Greek religion. The celebration of the body among the Greeks contrasts remarkably with the attitudes prevalent in other parts of the ancient world, where undress was typically associated with disgrace and defeat. The best-known example of this more common view is the biblical story of Adam and Eve, where the first man and woman discover that they are naked and consequently suffer shame and punishment. [Source: Jean Sorabella, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 2008, \^/]

“The ancestry of the female nude is distinct from the male. Where the latter originates in the perfect human athlete, the former embodies the divinity of procreation. Naked female figures are shown in very early prehistoric art, and in historical times, similar images represent such fertility deities as the Near Eastern Ishtar. The Greek goddess Aphrodite belongs to this family, and she too was imagined as life-giving, proud, and seductive. For many centuries, the Greeks preferred to see her clothed, unlike her Near Eastern counterparts, but in the mid-fourth century B.C., the sculptor Praxiteles made a naked Aphrodite, called the Knidian, which established a new tradition for the female nude. Lacking the bulbous and exaggerated forms of Near Eastern fertility figures, the Knidian Aphrodite, like Greek male athletic statues, had idealized proportions based on mathematical ratios. In addition, her pose, with head turned to the side and one hand covering the body, seemed to present the goddess surprised in her bath and thus fleshed the nude with narrative and erotic possibilities. The position of the goddess' hands may be meant to show modesty or desire to shield the viewer from too full a view of her godhead. Although the Knidian statue is not preserved, its impact survives in the numerous replicas and variants of it commissioned in the Hellenistic (12.173) and Roman (52.11.5) eras. Such images of Venus (the Latin name of Aphrodite) adorned houses, bath buildings, and tombs as well as temples and outdoor sanctuaries. \^/

“Since the nudes of ancient Greece and Rome became normative in later Western art, it is worth pausing to consider what they are and are not. They express profound admiration for the body as the shape of humanity, yet they do not celebrate human variety; they may have sex appeal, yet they are never totally prurient in intent. The nudes of Greco-Roman art are conceptually perfected ideal persons, each one a vision of health, youth, geometric clarity, and organic equilibrium. Kenneth Clark considered idealization the hallmark of true nudes, as opposed to more descriptive and less artful figures that he considered merely naked. His emphasis on idealization points up an essential issue: seductive and appealing as nudes in art may be, they are meant to stir the mind as well as the passions.

Ancient Greek Painting

painting of animal sacrifice from 6th century BC Corinth

Virtually no Greek paintings or murals have survived until the 20th century. Most of the what we know is based on written descriptions. The paintings that have survived are mostly those on vases that were made during the Archaic Age (750 B.C. to 500 B.C.) not during the Golden Age of Greece (457 B.C. to 430 B.C.).

Greeks used pigments mixed with hot wax to paint their warships. Later the Romans used this technique to make portraits. The Greeks also used paints made from precious stones, earth and plants. The Aristotelean beliefs that all colors were created by mixing black and white endured until the 17th century.

The ancient Mediterraneans obtained blue from a hermaphroditic snail with a gland that produces a fluid that becomes blue when exposed to air and light. The glands only produced the stuff when they were more male than female.

Subjects of ancient Greek paintings include snake-haired Medusas, centaurs, dancing girls, Olympic athletes and gods. A Greek tomb painting from the fifth century B.C. shows an athlete diving from one world to the next.

The Greek painter Zeuxis laughed so hard at one of his own paintings he broke a blood vessel and died.

Art Perspective in Ancient Greece

One of the great advancements of the Renaissance, linear perspective, was actually a rediscovery says Boorstin. In the fifth century B.C., Greek vase painters used "foreshortening" to illustrate depth and Agatharchus of Samos wrote in his book on perspective that "given a center in definite space, the line should naturally correspond with due regard to the point of sight and divergence of visual rays."

Plato however declared that artist who made something smaller simply because it was further away was reckless. Roman architect Viruvius defined scenography in the first century B.C. as "shading of the front and the retreating sides, and the correspondence of all lines to the vanishing point, which is the center of a circle." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Ancient Greek Vase Paintings

Alabastron with courtship scene
The earliest ancient Greek vases were decorated with abstract designs and geometric figures (8th century B.C.). During the 7th century the human figures became larger and more life-like and by the 6th century Greek art had evolved into the classical vase art. Many were painted on kraters-ceramic pots that held about 48 liters and were used for mixing wine and water.

The first vessels with figures were made by Cornithian potters in the 7th century B.C. They featured black figures on the natural color of the pottery. The figures were black silhouette with a design scratched out with a needle. White and purple were painted on the black silhouette to highlight certain features. On the "red figure" vases of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. the process was reversed with a few red silhouettes and a large black background on which the figures were painted instead of inscribed.

The "red figure" style was invented around 530 B.C. by the Andokides Painter (so named because he was the favorite artist of the potter Andokides). The details of the bodies were often painted and rendered with skill but featured little or no perspective and depth.

Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Vase Painting

The value of these vases during Grecian times is showed in a painting with Athena giving a laurel wreath to a pair of potters, apparently the winners of a pottery competition. One of the most famous and beautifully preserved Greek vases show Hercules putting a lion into a head lock and grabbing his hind leg while Athena with her owl shield look on.

The Euphronious krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) is believed by to be the most beautiful ancient Greek vase in the world. Painted by Euphronious around 500 B.C., it features a scene from the “Iliad” painted with anatomical details, depth and emotion. Harvard art historian Gloria Pinney told National Geographic, "Euphronios and his circle of pioneers show a clear interests in musculatures. And in other respects — experimentation with perspective, depiction of fleeting gestures — there is a sense that red-figure artists were moving towards realism."

Euphronious is one of the few great Greek painters known by name. Only about two dozen works by him are known. The Euphronious krater contains his signatures and was described by Met director Thomas Hoving as “positively the finest work of art I’ve ever seen.” When the Met decided to pay $1 million for it, the move sent the message through the art world that big money could be earned by selling antiquities.

Scenes of Everyday Life Depicted on Ancient Greek Vases

20120222-000111 krater.jpg
Euphronious krater
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “By the mid-sixth century B.C., craftsmen of the Athenian potters' quarter, known as the Kerameikos, had arrived at a fully developed style of black-figure vase painting. Many depicted scenes of hoplites putting on their armor, bidding farewell to loved ones, or advancing in phalanx formation. Most vases illustrated myths or heroic tales in which gods, goddesses, legendary heroes, and Amazons mingled with warriors in hoplite armor. These elegant battle scenes must have afforded great pleasure to an aristocratic class that embraced an ethos of military valor and athletic competition. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002, \^/] “In the years around 530 B.C., the red-figure technique was invented, quite possibly by the potter Andokides and his workshop. It gradually replaced the black-figure technique as innovators recognized the possibilities that came with drawing forms, rather than laboriously delineating them with incisions. The use of a brush was suited to the naturalistic representation of anatomy, garments, and emotions. As vase painters were able to represent the human body in increasingly complex poses, they more frequently depicted scenes of everyday life–athletics, drinking, and warfare–that allowed them to show off their mastery of the new medium. Apart from a few significant exceptions, these vases depicted an Athenian man's world. It was not until the middle of the fifth century B.C. that vase painters broadened their repertoire to include scenes of daily life that focused on women engaged in domestic activities. This innovation reflected not only decorative preferences, but also the uses to which the finest vases were put. \^/

“By the late fifth century, there was another distinct change in tone as vase painters opted to depict more poignant moments. Warriors arming or fighting were replaced by statuesque youths taking leave of their families, and scenes of music making associated with symposia earlier in the century were transformed into intimate depictions of several figures listening to a performer. Scenes of women performing domestic activities became particularly focused on wedding preparations and celebrations of the bride. “\^/

Time of Day on Painted Athenian Vases

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The scenes of myth and daily life that decorate Athenian vases often have a pronounced sense of time, which is depicted in simple pictorial terms that are meant to be easily recognized. Night, for instance, can be signified with lamps, torches, and the presence of the appropriate nocturnal deities, Selene the moon goddess, and Nyx, the very personification of night. Similarly, Helios the sun god and Eos the goddess of dawn indicate daytime. The great frequency of temporal motifs on vases suggests that time was integral to the narrative construction of many vase paintings. Moreover, the deliberate references to time on Athenian vases can often be explained as an essential feature of the specific subject portrayed. [Source: Jennifer Udell, Bothmer Fellow, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

Ajax and Achilles playing a game

“The degree to which a given subject requires a clear indication of time is best illustrated by the numerous depictions of the Attic wedding, in particular, vase paintings that show the procession of the married couple to their new home. In these scenes, the participants consistently carry torches because the nuptial procession was a nocturnal event. Torches in fact seem to be the only constant pictorial motif of this aspect of the wedding celebration. Their practical necessity to the procession, furthermore, is explained by the literary sources, which confirm the time of day of the nuptial march as it is depicted on vases. Homer, for example, in his description of the Shield of Achilles, writes that, "by the light of blazing torches they were leading the brides from their rooms throughout the city …" (Iliad 18.490–493). \^/ “Torches figure prominently in another subject treated by vase painters, the Return of Persephone, a myth that equates the arrival of spring with the notion of the young goddess' return to earth from the Underworld. Although the story is mythological, the torches, which place the scene at night, allude to the real-life propensity of the ancient Greeks to celebrate many of their most important seasonal festivals and religious rituals at night, a cultural practice well attested in the ancient literary sources. The ritualistic aspect of the Persephone myth lies in the fact that it is an allegory for the return of spring, which is itself a yearly (ritual) event. The torch and, by extension, the clear indication of night are therefore essential elements of the iconography of this subject in vase painting. \^/

“Lamps appear regularly in vase paintings of nocturnal events that take place indoors. Subjects include the Greek symposium and other nighttime activities, such as a reveler calling on a hetaira(prostitute). The small, controlled flame of a lamp would have made them preferable to a burning torch for interior illumination. That lamps were the favored method of lighting the home is suggested by the great numbers of them excavated from domestic contexts, and by the ancient texts, which account for their use indoors. \^/

“There are many subjects in vase painting that (merely by virtue of the activity shown) can be said to take place during the day. Harvest and hunt scenes fall into this category. When a more deliberate reference to daylight hours is required, Helios and/or Eos will often be included. Both, for instance, preside over sacrifices in vase paintings. Their dual appearance visually confirms the actual ancient Greek practice of making sacrifices at daybreak, as attested by Hesiod, an eighth-century B.C. Greek poet, and Plutarch, a Greek writer from the first century A.D. When the daytime gods are present in a scene of a common daily ritual, it may signify that a particular myth is portrayed. A temporal consistency was thereby retained in the iconography of specific mythological subjects in vase painting, which reflected the time of day that specific activities took place in daily life. The relationship between the temporal specificity of certain aspects of life in ancient Greece and their treatment in Greek mythology is also evident in depictions of the story of Eos, the goddess of dawn, and Tithonos, a schoolboy. In mythology, the goddess takes Tithonos away to live with her. This was an abduction of opportunity, given that the school day started at daybreak in antiquity. The law stating that school began at sunrise is preserved in the legal code of Solon, a sixth-century B.C. Athenian statesman, and it demonstrates once more that elements of ancient Greek myth reflect certain aspects of ancient Greek life. \^/

“The importance of time as an underlying theme in Greek life is revealed through an examination of Greek vase painting and literature. While never overtly expressed in either medium, the prevalence of temporal allusions (both written and visual) speaks to the significance of time as a structuring and ordering force in Greek society. The consistency with which particular activities such as weddings, sacrifices, and religious rituals were depicted within a specific temporal context, moreover, supports the idea that many events were bound to certain times of day, and suggests that the clear indication of time was a significant component of the iconography of many subjects treated by vase painters. “ \^/

Painted Funerary Monuments from Hellenistic Alexandria

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Although painting was one of the most celebrated arts of ancient Greece, extant original works of this fragile craft are extremely rare. A group of six painted limestone funerary monuments from Alexandria are exceptionally well preserved survivals of Greek painting from the fourth and third centuries B.C. These monuments—each in the form of a Greek stele with a large recessed painted panel—were discovered in 1884 in excavations of a large hypogeum tomb in the Ibrahimieh necropolis of Alexandria. Conventionally known as the Soldiers' Tomb due to the preponderance of monuments commemorating foreign mercenaries in the service of the Ptolemaic kingdom, this subterranean burial complex had a large central court open to the sky and multiple horizontal rows of narrow niches (loculi) cut into its walls for burials. Many of these niches were sealed with small painted slabs. The six painted funerary monuments in the Metropolitan Museum constitute the best-preserved examples of painting from this tomb and some of the finest extant painting from Alexandria in this period. [Source: Mark B. Abbe, Leon Levy Foundation Fellow, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2007, \^/]

Painted Funerary Monuments from Hellenistic Alexandria

“The focus of the painting on each monument is the deceased, who is identified by inscription. Two types of scenes generally predominate. The subject is represented either in a private domestic setting in intimate relation to family members, or in a more public presentation against a generic background with the attributes of his civic role emphasized. \^/

“Greek painters of the Classical and early Hellenistic periods developed revolutionary methods of representation that are fundamental to the Western pictorial tradition, such as three-dimensional perspective, the use of light and shade to render form, and trompe l'oeil realism. These stylistic developments were intimately related to Greek advances in the materials and techniques of painting. Few examples of the principal medium of ancient Greek painting—readily perishable whitened wooden panels (pinakes)—survive. Therefore our understanding of the technical innovations of Greek painters is largely derived from a limited number of paintings executed on stone supports that have been preserved in protected environments, such as the Soldiers' Tomb and the monumental Macedonian tombs of mainland Greece. Such works, though not the esteemed masterpieces on wood celebrated by ancient authors, provide invaluable direct evidence of Greek painting. \^/

“The painted funerary monuments from the Soldiers' Tomb reflect the highly developed technical sophistication of Greek painting methods of this period. The recessed picture panel of each was prepared with a lead white ground to create a flat, uniform, and brilliant white surface, a preparation technique undoubtedly transferred from contemporary wooden panel painting. An outline of the composition was incised in this ground layer and then delineated with extensive preparatory drawing using carbon black. The painting process involved building subtle color values and tones through overlapping applications of both pure colors and subtle mixtures of colors to maximum effect. Greek painters developed a wide variety of pigments and organic colorants to provide the technical means for representing the expressive ideas of their paintings. Many of these materials are evident in the painted monuments from the Soldiers' Tomb, which used both local and imported minerals, synthetic inorganic pigments, and organic dye stuffs precipitated on white clay. It is unclear if these paintings were executed in tempera, characterized by the use of an organic binding medium, or encaustic, a less well understood wax-based technique developed by Greek painters during this period. This and other important issues of ancient painting techniques are the subject of ongoing technical art historical research.

Ancient Greek Sculpture

The Greeks were master sculptors. They were much more highly skilled than the Egyptians that preceded them and the Romans who came afterwards. Their skill and sense of aesthetics was not matched until the Renaissance. Describing a Greek statue of Hercules, Cicero wrote: "I do not know that I have ever seen a lovelier work of art." Its mouth and chin were rubbed, he said, as if the people had not only prayed to it but kissed it.

Athletes were favorite subjects. Fearing the establishment of personality cults, sculptors focused in on the physique and idealized physical features of the athletes they depicted. They did not, except in rare cases, attempt to create individualized portraits. We hardly know any of the names of the artists on most Greek works of art. In the case a sculpture when a work was identified with a name it is not clear whether the name is of a person who did the work by himself or if he was assisted by a school or workshop.

See Separate article

Ancient Greek Pottery

8th century BC jug
Ceramics created by the Greeks were far superior to anything made by civilizations that preceded it. The Greeks produced vases, urns and bowls. They were known for their craftsmanship. The most famous pieces were vases with paintings such as Apollo playing a tortoise shell lyre. Unlike oriental pottery which came in all kinds of shapes, ancient Greek pottery was more limited, comprised of only a few dozen shapes that changed little over time.

Many things — including grain, olive oil or wine — were stored and carried amphorae (large clay jars) with two handles near the mouth that made it possible to pick them up and carry them. They generally were two to three feet tall and carried about seven gallons. Their shapes and markings were unique and these helped archaeologists date them and identify their place of origin.

Most Greek pottery was connected with wine. Large two-handled amphorae (from the Greek “ amphi” , “on both sides,” and “ phero” , “to carry”) was used to transport wine. Smaller, flat bottom amphorae were used to hold wine on the table. Kraters were amphora-like vessels with a wide mouth used to mix water and wine. From a krater wine and water were retrieved with a metal ladle and placed into pitcher and from the pitcher poured into two-handled drinking cups.

Hydria, with two horizontal handles, were round jars used to carry water from a well to a fountain. Before glassblowing was developed in the 1st century B.C. “core glass” vessels were made by forming glass around a solid metal rod that was taken out as the glass cooled.

The largest ancient metal vessel ever found was bronze krater dated to the sixth century B.C. Found in the tomb of a Celtic warrior princess, it was buried with a chariot and other objects in a field near Vix, France. Almost as tall as a man and large enough to hold 300 gallons of wine, it had reliefs of soldiers and chariots around the neck and a bronze cover that fit snugly in the mouth. Ordinary amphora held only around a gallon of wine.

Terra Cotta Figurines from Ancient Greece

actor slave

Maya B. Muratov of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Terracotta figurines were rather familiar objects to the ancient Greeks. Fragments and complete pieces found in the course of archaeological excavations form the primary basis for our understanding of how the figurines were used. They stood in houses as mere decorations, or served as cult images in small house shrines; some of them functioned as charms to ward off evil. They were brought to temples and sanctuaries as offerings to the gods and deposited in graves either as cherished possessions of the deceased, as gifts, or as protective devices. [Source: Maya B. Muratov, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“Among the numerous types of Greek terracotta figurines, one group stands out. These are figurines with jointed or movable limbs; this means that their legs, arms, and sometimes even heads were made separately and attached to the body after firing. Statuettes of this type represent a class common all over the Greek and Roman world during all periods. Such figurines existed in Greece as early as the tenth century B.C., were widely popular in Cyprus from the eighth century B.C. onward, and continued down through the Roman period. The vast majority of these figurines have suspension holes on top of their heads; the dangling arms and legs were in motion when the figurines were shaken or hung. The movement of the limbs certainly lent vitality to a figurine, while adding a magical aspect. \^/

“Terracotta figurines with articulated limbs are often described as dolls or children's toys, and are sometimes thought to have been dressed in clothes. While one cannot simply dismiss these assumptions, it must be pointed out that this hypothesis is based on an inaccurate reading of an ancient epigram, which was originally interpreted to say that a girl named Timareta dedicated to the goddess (at a sanctuary) her dolls and their dresses. However, more recently it has been convincingly argued that she in fact dedicated her hair and her own clothing. Another point to be made against the figurines being play things is that they are too fragile to be constantly handled by children. The fact that these "dolls" are often discovered in the graves of adults indicates their possible chthonic connection or apotropaic function. In addition, the movement these figurines were capable of when swinging, as well as the clanking noise they produced, might have made them attractive charms. \^/

“Given so many choices, it is rather difficult to define a single purpose for the articulated figurines. The fact that they could move would seem to be essential to understanding their function and meaning, which have not been satisfactorily explained thus far.” \^/

Ancient Greek Coins and Jewelry

Mint of Alexander the Great
In addition to being legal tender, coins were also regarded as works of art and forums for political views. Every city state struck its own coins, usually from silver, and their designs changed constantly to commemorate victories or rulers. The figures on these coins conveyed emotion, sereneness and strength and some their makers considered them be such works of art the coins were signed.

The first coins appeared in Lydia, a small kingdom in Asia Minor, around 600 B.C. Coinage was introduced to Asia Minor by the Lydians and was used by several Greek city-states on Asia Minor within a few decades after it first appeared. The Greeks made coins of various denomination in unalloyed gold and silver and the stamped them with images of gods and goddesses.

Coins were the primary means of exchange (paper money was first used by the Mongols and the Chinese around A.D.1000). Coins were usually made by striking the smooth gold and silver blanks between engraved dies of bronze or hardened iron. The die for one side usually contained the face of a ruler. The other die was for the back of the coin. Molds were only rarely used.

By the 5th century B.C., Greek craftsmen had raised jewelry-making to a fine art. Greek jewelry and ornaments included gold jewelry, diadems, beads, and intricately carved sealing stones. The Egyptians and Assyrians used enamel bricks to decorate their buildings. The Greeks and Romans were masters of using enamels to make jewelry.

Some of the oldest known rings were used as signets by rulers, public officials and traders to authorize documents with a stamp. Signatures were not used until late in history.Most ancient rings were made of steatite (soapstone) or medals such as bronze, silver or gold. Few were adorned with precious stones. Those that were contained amethyst, coral or lapis lazuli. The Greeks believed that coral protected sailors for storms and amethyst had the power to keep people from getting drunk.

Collection at the Greek National Archaeological Museum

The collection at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens is one of the best archeological museums in the world. The British may have taken the best the Parthenon had to offer but Greece has a lot of historical sites they missed and most outstanding stuff ended up here. In the center of the museum is the Mycenaean collection (circa 800 B.C.) which contains treasures taken from royal tombs including weapons, miniatures, stelae and cups from the famous Vafio beehive tomb.

On display from the so-called Agamemnon's beehive tomb are frescoes, gold jewelry and a golden mask which is believed to bear a likeness of Mycenaean commander who led the battle against Troy. Golden object from Mycenaean tombs including a lion helmet (1550 B.C), which looks like something from a science fiction movie. Classical Greek statues include a magnificent bronze of Poseidon casting a spear (which has been removed) and the standing youth. The exquisite bronze portrait head from Delos, with its sad longing eyes, made around 80 B.C., is one of the most expressive pieces of Greek sculpture.

In the Minoan collection (circa 900 B.C.) from Santorini is a collection of frescoes, vases and marble figurines taken from villages buried under volcanic ash. One 3500 year-old fresco shows two young boys in a boxing match, the first depiction of boxing gloves, or for that matter gloves of any kind. In another wing is a huge numismatic collection which contains some of the world's oldest coins.

The museum also contains sculptures of men with fish and a frescos of warships 20 feet long from Akrotiri, Santorini. two golden masks from Mycenae that don't belong to Argammenon, the tablets of Phylos with a chicken scratch written language that showed how the Greek language evolved from Mycenaean, and 44 pounds of gold treasure from the Mycenaean capital,

Minoan painting from Akrotiri

Collections at Other Museums in Greece

The Benaki Museum in Athens is a small museum with one of world's best collections of ancient gold objects. Founded in 1930 by collector Anthony Benaki, it contains a late-Archaic gold ring with an image of an archer, a 5th century B.C. gold bull-head pendant, a Hellenistic wreath fashioned from beaten gold “oak leaves,” a Hellenistic gold ring with an image of naked woman and a swan.

The Goulandris Museum of Cycladic and Ancient Greek Art (4 Neophytou Douka St) contains an extraordinary collection of 230 objects, including marble figurines from an isolated civilization that flourished 5,000 years ago on the Cyclades islands. Many of the figures have geometric oval faces with tubular noses that are reminiscent of some of Moor's work. The oldest pieces are violin-shaped stylized female torsos found in cemetery on Naxos that date back to 2800 B.C. Also worth checking out are the clay "frying pans" (whose function is unknown), a bronze hydria (three-handled water jug), and a jointed clay doll from Corinth with movable legs.

The Delphi Museum contains a life-size silver bull, the column of dancing girls and many stone carvings and monuments that once lined the sacred way. Also in the museum is a Roman replica of the sacred stone. The original stone, legend has its, was placed in Delphi by Zeus. To chose the site Zeus released one eagle from east and one eagle from the west. Where they met was where he threw the stone marking Delphi as "the navel of the world." The reconstruction of the Façade of the Treasury of the Siphnians feature a couple of draped women for columns and a frieze depicting “The Battle of the Gods and Giants” . Notice in particular that one of the lions pulling the chariot of Cybele is devouring one of the giants. The statue of a bronze charioteer is one of the earliest-known large bronze statues in Greek still in existence. Sculptors like bronze because they could lift up arms and defy gravity with more ease than with stone.

The Thessalonki Archeological Museum is regarded as the best archeological museum outside of Athens. It is comprised of classical treasures collected from all over northern Greece. Some of the best pieces are found in Vergina annex which houses items taken from the tomb of King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, which was excavated in 1977. There are also vases and bronze ornaments from the Geometric age; mosaic floors excavated in Thessalonki; and 1st century Roman sculptures including one of a empower who claimed his seat when he was 14.

There are two museums in Olympia: The archeological museum which contains a sculptures, pottery and bronze figures; and new museum which explains the history of the games and brings them to life. The main attraction at the Olympia Museum are sculptures of Hermes with a child and clothes in one hand, of Hippodamia attacked by a Centaur, and of Apollo.

20120222-Elgin Marbles Elgin_Marbles_east_pediment.jpg
Elgin Marbles, east pediment from the Parthenon

Pausanias on the Art in Town of Amaklai

On “the interesting things at Amyklai”, a town in Laconia in southern Greece, six kilometers south of Sparta, Pausanias wrote in Periegesis Hellados III. 6 (A.D. 160): “There is a stone stele naming Ainetos a winner of the Pentathlon; he died, or so they say, with his head still wearing the wreath after winning at Olympia. There is a portrait of him, and there are bronze tripods. The older tripods are said to be a tithe of the spoils of the war against Messenia. Under the first tripod stands a statue of Aphrodite; under the second is Artemis; these tripods and their decorations are by Gitiadas. But the third tripod is by Kallon of Aegina, and under it stands a statue of Kore, Demeter's daughter. Aristandros of Paros made the Woman with the Harp, who is apparently "Sparta", and Polykleitos of Argos made the Aphrodite of the Amyklaians, as they call her. These tripods are larger than the others, which came from the Battle of Aegospotamoi. [Source: CSUN]

“Bathykles of Magnesia, who made the Throne of the Amyklaian, dedicated the Graces when he had completed it, along with a statue of Artemis of Good Thoughts. The question as to who taught Bathykles and under which Spartan king he worked is one which I leave aside, but I saw the Throne, and I will describe it. In front of it and behind it rise two Graces and two Seasons; on the left stand Echidna and Typhoeus, while on the right there are Tritons. It would weary my readers if I went through all the workmanship in detail; but, to summarize (since most of it is familiar anyway), Poseidon and Zeus are carrying Taygete, the daughter of Atlas, and her sister Alkyone. Atlas is also carved on it, and the fight of Herakles and Cyknos, and the battle of the Centaurs in the Cave of Pholos. I do not understand why Bathykles carved the Minotaur, bound and taken alive by Theseus. There is a Phaeacean dance on the Throne, and Demodokos is singing. There is Perseus, triumphing over Medusa. There is the carrying off the daughters of Leukippos, the fight between Herakles and the giant Thourios, and the fight between Tyndareus and the giant Eurytos. Hermes is carrying the infant Dionysos to Olympus, and Athena is bringing Herakles to live with the gods forever. Peleus is handing over Achilles to be brought up by Cheiron, since Achilles is said to have been one of his pupils. Kephalos is being carried off by Eos because of his beauty. The gods are bringing gifts to the wedding of Harmonia. There are images of the combat of Achilles with Memnon, and Herakles punishing Diomedes the Thracian, and Nessos in the River Euenos. Hermes is taking the goddesses to be judged by Paris. Adrastos and Tydeus break up the fight between Amphiaraos and Lykourgos, son of Pronax. Hera is looking at Io, daughter of Inachos, who has been turned into a heifer. Athena is escaping from Hephaestus, who is pursuing her. Then there is the series of the great deeds of Herakles: Herakles and the Hydra, and Herakles bringing back the Hound of Hades. Anaxias and Mnasinous are each on horseback, but Megapenthes the son of Menelaus and Nikostratos share a horse. Bellerophon is destroying the Lycian monster; Herakles is driving off the cattle of Geryon.

“At the upper limits of the Throne are the sons of Tyndareus on horseback, one on either side; here are sphixes under the horses and wild beasts with their heads raised, a lioness under Polydeukes and a leopard on the other side. On the very top of the throne is the dance of the Magnesians, who worked on the Throne with Bathykles. Underneath the throne, behind the Tritons, there is the Calydonian Boar Hunt, Herakles killing the sons of Aktor, Kalais and Zetes driving off the Harpies from Phineus, Perithoos and Theseus carrying off Helen, Herakles with the lion by the throat, and Apollo and Artemis shooting Tityos. There are carvings of Herakles fighting the Centaur Oreios and Theseus fighting the Minotaur, the wrestling match of Herakles and Acheloos, the story of Hera bound by Hephaestus, the games given by Akastos for his father, the story of Menelaus and Proteus the Egyptian (from the Odyssey. Finally, Admetus is harnessing his chariot with a boar and a lion, and the Trojans are bringing jars to offer them to Hektor.

Altar of Zeus from Pergamon

“The part of the Throne where the god would sit is not a single continuous thing, but has several seats with a space next to each seat. The middle part is very broad, and that is where the statue stands. I know no one who has measured this, but at a guess you could say that it was forty-five feet. It is not the work of Bathykles, but ancient and made without artistry. Except for the face and the tips of its feet and hands it looks like a bronze pillar. It has a helmet on its head, and a spear and a bow in its hands. The base of the statue is shaped like an altar, and Hyakinthos is said to be buried in it. At the Hyakinthia, before the sacrifice to Apollo, they pass through a bronze door to dedicate the offerings of a divine hero to Hyakinthos in this altar; the door is on the left of the altar. There is a figure of (B)iris carved on one side of the altar, and Amphitrite and Poseidon on the other; Zeus and Hermes are talking together, with Dionysos and Semele standing nearby and Io beside Semele. Also on this altar are Demeter and Kore and Plouto, the Fates and the Seasons, and Aphrodite, Athena and Artemis (they are bringing Hyakinthos and Polyboia into Olympus; they say that she was his sister who died a virgin). In this sculpture, Hyakinthos has already grown hair on his face, but Nikias the son of Nikeratos had him painted as extremely beautiful, which is a reference to the fact that Apollo was in love with him. Herakles is also sculpted on this altar, being led into Olympus by Athena and all the gods. Then there are the daughters of Thestios, and the Muses and Seasons. The story of Zephyros, and how Hyakinthos was killed accidentally by Apollo, and the story of the flower, may not be true, but let it pass.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum; Euphronious krater from New York Times; Alexandria funeral monument, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.