Ancient Greece represents one of the most investigated and at the same time enigmatic spheres of culture. No doubt, art, music, theatre, science, literature, painting, architecture, and democracy of the Greeks influences modern culture even many centuries after. Actually, the ancient Greeks introduced the humanities. The current government, architecture, literature, and sculpture take sources from ancient Greece. Its impact can be found in languages and in people’s minds.
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The word “music” takes its roots from nine Muses of ancient Greece. The Muses were goddesses of arts and sciences: Urania was a tutelary goddess of astronomy, Calliope – of epos, Clio – of history, Melpomene – of tragedy, Polyhymnia – of hymns, Thalia – of comedy and idyllic poetry, Erato – of love poetry, Terpsichore – of dance, Euterpe – of lyric poetry and music. And Apollo was the god of music, poetic inspiration, archery, prophecy, medicine, pastoral life. He was a patron of Muses. Nowadays, the term “muse” is used to denote a person influencing the creative work of an artist or poet, like Gala for Salvador Dali. The word “museum” comes from a Greek word denoting a place dedicated to the Muses. In the field of music, the Greek language gave us such terms as melody, tune, and rhythm. Music was very important in education; it was considered to be an essential part of the upbringing of many-sided personalities. And the Greek musical modes were taken as examples for classical and Western religious music. Pythagoras, an outstanding Greek composer, created a mathematical theory used in modern times as harmonic accordance. Musical instruments invented in ancient Greece were string kithara, associated with Apollo, and reed aulos, linked with Dionysus. One of the mythic musicians was Orpheus, who inspired both musicians and artists such as Gustave Moreau, Albrecht Dürer, and John William Waterhouse. Orpheu’s play was so moving that even inanimate objects started listening. A lot of composers, including Christoph Gluck (“Orfeo ed Euridice”, “Alceste”, “Iphigenie en Tauride”, “Echo et Narcisse”), Richard Strauss (“Elektra”), Jacques Offenbach (“Orpheus in the Underworld”, “La Belle Helene”), Igor Stravinsky (“Oedipus Rex”) set mythological themes to music.
Greek drama developed popular today comedy and tragedy. It originates from festivals in honor of Dionysus. Three male actors wore masks depicting mood and character played. Three unities of time, place and action were invented by ancient Greeks and influenced drama of the neoclassical period. From Greek theatre come orchestra, skene (stage), chorus, and many other inventions. Plays of such dramaturges as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, remain the most frequently staged in modern theaters. The skill of these authors is unsurpassed and followed by modern directors and actors. The use of props, decorations, costumes, masks were introduced at that time. The acoustics of outdoor Greek theatre is admired by modern men of arts and scientists.
Literature takes its roots from ancient Greece as well. Alongside with epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, stand Works and Days by Hesiod that is the first known paean to work. The lyrical poetry of Sappho, Pindar showed deep movements of the human soul and subtle emotions. Spielvogel stated that the lyric is considerably shorter than epic poetry and focuses on personal emotions, usually the power of love and its impact on human lives (67). But what creates an inexhaustible source of inspiration for many authors, including Shakespeare’s tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet, is a myth. Greek mythology represents a unique phenomenon in the history of world culture. The Gods and Heroes gave ground for Greece philosophy, love for wisdom, which is recognized as a mother of all sciences.
Classical Greece is the name given to the period of Greek history known for brilliant achievements under the leadership of Pericles. Classical Greece saw a period of remarkable intellectual and cultural growth (Spielvogel 75). Athens became a center of culture and democracy. Famous constructions included Acropolis and Erechtheum. The greatest example was Parthenon, the Classical Greek temple. Some principles of Classical architecture are widely used now: calm, clarity, and freedom, use of superfluous detail and mathematical ratios. The Parthenon Marbles and Temple of Zeus at Olympia are examples of the Classical “golden” age. We cannot but mention the chryselephantine statues of Zeus at Olympia and Athena Parthenos executed by Phidias. Later the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Afrodite from the island of Melos depicted Classical themes. The development of culture was crowned by the Colossus of Rhodes, which was destroyed by an earthquake. His size was that of the Statue of Liberty. Greek temples housed the statues of deities, which were surrounded by a screen of columns. Thus, Greek temples were open and airy. “Especially important was a series of constructions on the Acropolis… included a temple to Athena Nike (the Bringer of Victory), and the Erechtheum, a multilevel temple…honored the gods and heroes who protected Athens” (Spielvogel 79).
Greek architecture was famous for Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. “The size and shape of a column constituted one of the most important aspects of Greek temple architecture” (Spielvogel 79). The strength of Doric columns lies in the simplicity of cylindrical shape; spirals of Ionic columns make them taller and more slender; Corinthian columns are admired for their acanthus leaves and the form of an upside-down bell. In modern sculpture and architecture, they can be found in the Abraham Lincoln memorial, NYC Custom House, which is held up by Doric columns, and the Jefferson memorial, as well, which is held up by twenty-six Ionic columns. The city of Washington possesses many features of classical and semi-classical architecture (the Capitol). The Russel House, Middletown, CT, can boast Corinthian columns (Greek Architecture).
Greek love for symmetry and the use of pediment, dentil, porches, and frieze can be found in constructions all over the world. The U.S. Supreme Court building carries most of the classical features.
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The Greeks used fresco, “a technique of applying pigment to wet plaster for architectural decoration” (Classical Connections: The Enduring Influence of Greek and Roman Art). Vase painting was a very popular type of art. Historical events and human deeds can be seen on amphorae, which were preserved.
Sculptures became a symbol of Greece culture. Stone, marble, and limestone were used to create authentic and true-to-life masterpieces. Sculptures not only served the purpose of decoration but also told about Gods, Heroes, events, mythical creatures. Due to the Romans, who copied many sculptures, we can marvel at them now. The main purpose was to show the perfection of the human body. During the Classical Age, the sculptors began creating figures expressing movement. The Discobolus by Myron is one of the most famous Greek statues. The human anatomy was thoroughly studied and used in creating sculptures. Lysippus wanted his works to get more realism, and created a canon of proportion. It meant attention to detail and the human body as a subject of realistic depiction.
The Greeks introduced polychrome. An example of multiple colors was found in the Parthenon atop the Acropolis. Queen Anne architecture in the United States adopted this technique for polychrome building facades.
The tradition of wall painting can be proved by scenes of hoplite combat at Kalapodi, frescoes “Grave of Phillip” and the “Tomb of Persephone”.
In Classical Greek democracy was born. The government was purely democratic. All citizens, except women, slaves, or foreigners, had the right to speak and propose ideas. Many principles of Athenian democracy are taken in state systems of many states and are recognized as just and clear.
No wonder that the Greek culture spread all over the world. The conquests of Alexander the Great brought Greek art to India and the traces can be found in Tibetan art.
Even the adoption of Christianity did not influence the established reign of the ancient Greek culture. Through Roman borrowing, it was rediscovered in the Renaissance. During this period people admired the purity of perfect beauty and perfection of the nude body represented by the sculptures of the ancient period. The poetry of Ovid excited the imagination of poets, artists, and dramatists. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo (“Bacchus” – the Roman god of wine, like Dionysus), and Raphael (“Galatea”) portrayed gods and heroes of Greek myths. Sandro Botticelli created his masterpiece “Birth of Venus”. Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante wrote their works under the influence of Ovid’s poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton, Jean Racine and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe revived Greek myths and drama. Francisco de Goya depicted Cronus devouring his children. Pieter Bruegel created a canvass with Icarus falling from the sky. Later on, classical themes were reinterpreted by Eugene O’Neill, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
The Neoclassical style appeared in the 18th century. It embodied ancient designs, such as columns, vases, and mythological creatures. Interest in Greek culture has never decreased. “Cultures existing side by side over time tend to interact, whatever people might want” (Burger 79). Thus, modern culture echoes many achievements of the ancient Greeks.
Burger, Michael. The Shaping of Western Civilization: from Antiquity to the Enlightenment. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2008.
Greek Architecture. A Digital Archive of Architecture. Web.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization, Volume A: To 1500. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.