Greek and Roman Art

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A History of Ancient Greece
The Greek Genius
Author: Robert Guisepi
Date: 1998
 

The Greeks were the first to formulate many of the Western world's fundamental concepts in politics, philosophy, science, and art. How was it that a relative handful of people could bequeath such a legacy to civilization? The definitive answer may always elude the historian, but a good part of the explanation lies in environmental and social factors.

Unlike the Near Eastern monarchies, the polis was not governed by a "divine" ruler, nor were the thoughts and activities of its citizens limited by powerful priesthoods. Many Greeks, and most notably the Athenians, were fond of good talk and relished debate and argument. As late as the first century A.D., St. Paul was welcomed by the Athenians because they "liked to spend all their time telling and listening to the latest new thing." (Acts 17:21)

The Greek Character

The Greeks felt a need to discover order and meaning both in nature and in human life. This quest for order produced exceptional results in science, art, and philosophy. Beginning with Hesiod, the Greeks stressed the virtue of sophrosyn (moderation, self-control) as the key to happiness and right living. Its opposite was hubris, meaning pride, arrogance, and unbridled ambition. The result of human excesses and lying at the root of personal misfortune and social injustice, hubris invariably provoked nemesis, or retribution. According to the Greeks, an inexorable law would cause the downfall or disgrace of anyone guilty of hubris. The Athenian dramatists often employed this theme in their tragedies, and Herodotus attributed the Persian defeat by the Greeks to Xerxes' overweening pride, for "Zeus tolerates pride in none but himself." ^16

[Footnote 16: Herodotus History of the Persian Wars 7.10.]

The Greeks exhibited human frailties and failings - at times they were irrational, vindictive, and cruel. But at their best they were guided by the ideals that permeate their intellectual and artistic legacy. The philosopher Protagoras is credited with the statement, "Man is the measure of all things" - a saying that sums up the outstanding feature of Greek thought and art.

Greek Religious Development

Early Greek religion abounded in gods and goddesses who personified the forces of nature. Thus Demeter (literally "Earth Mother"), was the earth and giver of grain; Apollo, the sun and giver of light; and Poseidon, who dwelled in the sea, was the ruler of the waters. Other deities had special functions, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine; and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and guardian of Athens. The Greeks of Homeric times believed in humanlike deities, capable of malice, favoritism, and jealousy, and differing from ordinary people only in their immortality (the result of a special diet) and their possession of supernatural powers. Zeus, the king of sky, earth, and human beings, ruled the world from Mount Olympus with the aid of lesser deities.

By the time of Hesiod, a religious reformation had begun that changed the vengeful and capricious gods of Homer into austere arbiters of justice who rewarded the good and punished the wicked. From the famous oracle at Delphi the voice of Zeus' son Apollo urged all Greeks to follow the ideal of moderation: "Nothing in excess" and "Know thyself" (meaning "know your limitations").

A century after Hesiod, the Orphic and Eleusinian mystery cults emerged as a new type of Greek religion. Their initiates (mystae) were promised an afterlife of bliss in Elysium, formally the abode after death of a few heroes only. The basis of Orphic cult was an old myth about Dionysus as a son of Zeus who was slain and eaten by the evil Titans before Zeus arrived on the scene and burned them to ashes with his lightning bolts. Orpheus taught that Zeus then created man from the Titans' ashes. Human nature, therefore, is composed of two disparate elements: the...
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