How Politics Influenced Greek Art & Culture

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  • 0:01 Ancient Greece
  • 0:52 Art and the Athenian Empire
  • 2:51 Art and the Macedonian Empire
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the relationship between politics and art in Ancient Greece and discover how each fueled the other. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ancient Greece

Art is great. We love art. But, art can very seldom exist on its own. There needs to be people to pay for it, or commission art, and these people need to have a reason to be willing to pay for art. Very often, this means that politics and art are intertwined. This is true now but was especially true in the ancient world when only the upper classes and government could afford to consistently commission art.

Among the artistic programs that were defined by politics of their times were those of Ancient Greece, the first major European civilization, lasting from roughly 900-31 BC. For almost a millennium, Greek art thrived, but it always reflected the political climate of its day.

Art and the Athenian Empire

In Ancient Greece, one of the most important centers of cultural production was the powerful city of Athens. The height of Athens, in the mid-5th century BC, is considered a golden age of Ancient Greece due to the incredible amount and quality of philosophy, math, history, and art produced by the city. But how did Athens become powerful enough to support this growth?

Around 480 BC, Persia invaded Greece, leading to the creation of the Delian League, a coalition of Greek city-states. This alliance proved successful, Persia was defeated, and Athens emerged as the most powerful city-state in Greece, earning the title of Hegemon. The leader of Athens, Pericles, moved the treasury of the Delian League into Athens and used it to rebuild the city, forming the Athenian Empire.

Athens under Pericles blossomed. Supported by the Delian treasury and the taxes Athens collected from other cities as the Hegemon, and later empire, the city of Athens commissioned art and architecture on a massive scale. Most notable was the rebuilding of the Athenian Acropolis, the religious and civic center that sat on the hill in the middle of Athens. The acropolis was rebuilt to reflect the power, wealth, and status of Athens, and the most important of these buildings was the Parthenon, a massive temple to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. This building also served as a treasury for Athens.

Built with ideal mathematical ratios, the Parthenon fit Greek visions of the perfect temple almost to a 'T'. Besides being large and aesthetically harmonious, it was covered in reliefs and statues of the highest quality Greece had seen to that point. Many of the scenes depicted in these reliefs show Greeks in battle with monsters, now believed to be a metaphor of the triumph over the Persians. Athenian art thrived, both supported by and reflective of the political power of the city.

Art and the Macedonian Empire

Throughout Greek history, art remained politically motivated. This was again evident when the kings of Macedon began a conquest of the Mediterranean in the 4th century BC. The most famous of these kings was Alexander the Great, and under him, the Macedonian Empire stretched into Central Asia. That's a lot of territory, and Alexander placed Greek generals in charge of controlling these territories, which they did by importing Greek culture. The spread of Greek cultural influence is known as Hellenization, and after Alexander's death in 323 BC, it became a major trend across the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Hellenization had dramatic impacts on the arts. For centuries, the Greeks had very specific ideas about art, using mathematical ratios to create idealized forms of beauty in both architecture and sculpture. However, the spread of Greek culture across the Mediterranean world resulted in new traditions being introduced, traditions from the territories captured by the Macedonian kings.

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