Home

Ancient Greece

Know Thyself

800 BCE31 BCE

Know Thyself

On a high terrace on the south-western slope of Mount Parnassus in Greece there is a temple to Apollo. For nearly five hundred years, until its destruction in 83 BC, kings, rulers and citizens of the Hellenic world traveled to the temple at Delphi to have their futures foretold by virgin priestesses, intoxicated by laurel smoke and the natural gas that poured from the earth. In the forecourt of this temple is inscribed the phrase ‘γνῶθι σεαυτὸν’ — Know Thyself.

Greece was the first great center of knowledge in the western world. Commerce drove mesopotamia, and the afterlife dominated Egyptian thought, but Greece was obsessed with how things work. Since the inception of the Greek language in 800 B.C., Greek culture progressed rapidly, developing the first democratic system of government, investing in education and using sport to unify and inspire. Mathematicians identified the pythagorean theorem and discovered that the world was a sphere. Philosophers theorized on the nature of reality and speculated on the perfect government. Even the vast pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses acted as mirrors of human relationships and social structures. Unfortunately, enlightenment was only available to Greek men — women were considered property in most greek city states, outsiders were ‘barbarians’ and slavery was taken for granted.

Greek art, like its culture as a whole, was cerebral and obsessed with perfection. Human forms are at the center of Greek expression, from the embellishment of pottery and mosaics to sculptural tributes to gods or famous athletes. Four phases of Greek thought and culture is embodied in these figures.

At first, the Greek style was similar to the simplified, stylized forms of Aegean art that came before. Greece was heavily influenced by other cultures through constant invasion and war with Persia. It was only after the Athenians defeated the Persian army of King Darius the First in 490 B.C. that Greece had the leisure to look inward and focus on education and infrastructure. Over the next 200 years, Greek culture came into it’s own. Artwork became more naturalistic, with realistic figures that mirror the scientific emphasis of the time. This ‘classical’ style lasted until the Death of Alexander the Great in 323, whose conquests had grown Greece into a massive empire, bringing prosperity to the Greek capitals. Centuries of intellectual investment had developed a rich culture of drama, politics and art. Art of this ‘Hellenistic’ period brought drama to the naturalism of previous work — motion, tension, joy and agony abound as the Greek culture embraced leisure. In Hellenistic art you can glimpse the beginning of the end. The culture had become decadent, and soon the more aggressive and economically minded Romans would subsume the Greek city states.

But the art and philosophy of ancient Greece had laid the foundation for thousands of years of western culture — influencing the Romans, and much later spurring the rebirth of intellectualism through the renaissance. We are still living with the Greek obsessions with knowledge, perfect human bodies, and our desire to know ourselves.

Read More
The Iliad

The Iliad

Homer

800 BCE
The Odyssey

The Odyssey

Homer

800 BCE
Moschophoros (calf-bearer)

Moschophoros (calf-bearer)

560 BCE
Greek Drinking Vessel

Greek Drinking Vessel

550 BCE
Vix Krater

Vix Krater

530 BCE
Peplos Kore

Peplos Kore

530 BCE
Bronze Statuette of a Bull

Bronze Statuette of a Bull

500 BCE
Tetradrachm

Tetradrachm

499 BCE
Temple of Poseidon

Temple of Poseidon

444 BCE

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man

Antigone, by Sophocles

442 BCE
Parthenon

Parthenon

Ictinus and Callicrates447 BCE-432 BCE

A stormy sea of wrong and ruining.

Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus

430 BCE
Terracotta column-krater

Terracotta column-krater

430 BCE

Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than illusion, followed by disillusion.

Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles

429 BCE
Temple of Segesta

Temple of Segesta

420 BCE
Erechtheion

Erechtheion

Mnesicles421 BCE-406 BCE
Ancient Theatre of Taormina

Ancient Theatre of Taormina

400 BCE
Ancient Theater of Segesta

Ancient Theater of Segesta

400 BCE

By the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth

Apology

Plato399 BCE
Terracotta calyx-krater

Terracotta calyx-krater

400 BCE-390 BCE
Head of Plato

Head of Plato

370 BCE
The Republic

The Republic

Plato

Irony, humor, metaphysics and the meaning of life. The original philosophical masterwork.

360 BCE
Aristotle's Poetics

Aristotle's Poetics

Aristotle

Drama, tragedy, comedy and satire. Aristotle's masterclass on poetry and theater — too bad half of it's missing...

335 BCE
Horse head Medici Riccardi

Horse head Medici Riccardi

325 BCE
Theatre of Epidaurus

Theatre of Epidaurus

Polykleitos the Younger300 BCE
The Ancient Theatre of Delphi

The Ancient Theatre of Delphi

300 BCE
Philosopher

Philosopher

200 BCE
Laocoön and His Sons

Laocoön and His Sons

200 BCE
Athena

Athena

100 BCE
Athletes

Athletes

100 BCE
Spinario

Spinario

100 BCE
Statue of Artemis Ephesus

Statue of Artemis Ephesus

2 BCE
Hercules of the Forum Boarium

Hercules of the Forum Boarium

1 CE
Hercules of the Theatre of Pompey

Hercules of the Theatre of Pompey

2 CE
Portrait of Aristotle

Portrait of Aristotle

100 CE
Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Cossutius500 BCE-132 CE
Apollo Seated With Lyre

Apollo Seated With Lyre

200 CE

The Six Enneads

Plotinus

270 CE
La Parisienne

La Parisienne

1350

Next movement: The EtruscansA mysteriously happy people at the fringes of the classical world

Help us bring art
history back to life

Support Trivium on Patreon