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date: 11 December 2023


The Grove Encyclopedia of Classical Art and Architecture


The study of Classical antiquity is one of the fastest-moving subjects in the humanities, driven in part by new archaeological discoveries, but also by fresh thinking that has fundamentally altered our perceptions of the past. Decades ago, when I was inducted into the subject, Classics consisted largely of memorizing material ranging from the ablative absolute in Latin and the middle voice in Greek to the causes, events and consequences of the Peloponnesian war (happily, there were six of each, which made memorizing easy), in which the Athenians were civilized and the Spartans uncultured. The study of Classical literature was both an end in itself and the compass that had led heinrich Schliemann to Priam’s Troy and Agamemnon’s Mycenae (words in small capitals indicate entries). Classical art and architecture were not much taught. The educational world has now changed: the students of the 21st century are unlikely to study Classical languages and literature, but often have the opportunity to study the art and architecture of the period; some will also have been able to see it at first hand, and so to stand before the artefacts that bear mute witness to the origins of Western culture.

The heritage of the art and architecture of Classical antiquity is part of the built environment of many countries far from Greece and Italy. A visitor to America, for example, might admire the work of Benjamin Latrobe, whose House of Representatives (completed 1811, in the US Capitol in Washington, DC) has Corinthian colonnades modelled on the Monument of Lysikrates in Athens; his pupil William Strickland designed the Second US Bank in Philadelphia (1818–24), which draws deeply on the Doric colonnade of the Parthenon in Athens. In 1806 the future director of that bank, Nicholas Biddle, commissioned from Latrobe one of America’s greatest country houses—Andalusia, near Philadelphia—to which Thomas Walter later added a monumental columned porch; the building is modelled on the Theseion in Athens. Thomas Jefferson, whose stature as President has eclipsed his genius as an architect, modelled the Virginian State Capitol in Richmond (c. 1785–96) on the Roman Maison Carrée in Nîmes (ancient Nemausus). This tradition of Greek architecture has continued to the present in the colonnaded porticos of many American churches. In art, the ancient form that has endured is Sculpture, and classical precedent has shaped genres such as the Equestrian monument, of which there are far more in America than in Italy. The equestrian statue of the Emperor marcus Aurelius is the starting point for American monuments ranging from Clark Mills’s Andrew Jackson (1852) in Lafayette Square in Washington and Henry Kirke Brown’s George Washington (1856) in Union Square in New York to the cowboy monuments now made in the American Southwest. America, like many countries settled by Europeans, is an inheritor of the Classical tradition of art and architecture.

It was the humanists of the Renaissance who invented a model of the cultural history of Europe in which the origins of European culture could be traced to the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. So powerful was this model that in succeeding centuries, ancient Greek and Classical Latin were taught in schools and universities throughout Europe and in its colonial empires. The canon of Classical literature included works such as Pausanias’ Guide to Greece and Vitruvius’ treatise on architecture, the reading of which stimulated an interest in the architecture of the ancient world. Some Greek and Roman buildings had remained visible in the intervening centuries, but this new interest in the civilizations of Classical antiquity led excavators in early 16th-century Rome to recover ancient buildings, such as the Domus Aurea (see Rome, §IV, 5), and ancient statues, such as Laokoon. These discoveries influenced the course of contemporary art and architecture, and further stimulated scholarly interest in the art and architecture of Classical antiquity.

As the ancient world was studied, scholars began to divide it into periods, which are helpful but artificial ways of understanding developments in the style of art and architecture. The term ‘Classical’ is used in two senses: it may, as in the title of this book, be a general term for the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome; it may also, as in the chronological surveys within this book, refer to a specific period. In the case of Greece, seven principal periods are distinguished, though the dates attached to several of the terms are not the subject of general agreement amongst ancient historians and Classical archaeologists.

(i) Bronze Age (c. 3600–c. 1050 bc)

(ii) Dark Age (c. 1050–c. 700 bc)

(iii) Archaic (c. 700–c. 480 bc)

(iv) Classical (c. 480–323 bc)

(v) Hellenistic (323–27 bc)

(vi) Imperial Roman (27 bcad 324)

(vii) Byzantine (ad 324–1453)

The Bronze Age on the mainland of Greece encompasses three quite distinct periods collectively known as Helladic, the final phase of which is Mycenaean (c. 1600–c. 1050 bc), which seems to mark the advent of speakers of Greek. The civilization of Bronze Age Crete is known as Minoan, and that of the Bronze Age Cyclades as Cycladic; the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris in the 1950s established that the Mycenaean civilization was Greek-speaking, but the Minoan civilization was not, and the language of the Cyclades may or may not have been Greek. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which were written in the 8th century bc, treated this period as the heroic age of Greece, and its mythology was to inform Greek art for centuries.

The Dark age denotes the period from the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization to the emergence of the Greek city-state; the Pottery of this period is divided into three phases: Sub-Mycenaean, Protogeometric and Geometric. Towards the end of the Geometric period in pottery, the temple emerged as a distinctive architectural form in buildings such as the first Temple of Hera (Heraion) on Samos. The Archaic period is marked by the appearance of monumental sculpture and the development of architecture, initially based on Egyptian models but soon developing distinctive styles. In pottery, the Orientalizing style, best exemplified in 8th-century Corinth, was superseded in 6th-century Athens, initially by Black-figure pottery and then, in the last quarter of the century, by the exquisite designs of Athenian Red-figure pottery. The Classical period is traditionally bounded by the defeat of the Persian King Xerxes by an alliance of mainland and island Greeks led by Athens and Sparta (480–479 bc) and the death of Alexander the great in 323 bc. The following year, Athenian democracy was replaced by a restricted franchise that was a form of oligarchy; democracy was subsequently restored, though it was frequently suspended in the decades that followed. The Classical period has long been regarded as the high-water mark of Greek civilization, in part because of the literature and political institutions of Athens, but also because rediscovery of the art of this period shaped modern tastes. In this cultural model, the Hellenistic period that followed represented a decline from the standards of Periclean Athens. This may be true of political institutions, but it is not true of art: the finest surviving sculpture of the period, such as the Venus de milo and the Nike of samothrace, is the ancient art that now captures the popular imagination as much as any work of the Classical period.

Towards the end of the Hellenistic period, Rome became the most important power in the Mediterranean. After Rome’s defeat of Carthage in 202 bc, the subjugation of the Greek world began in earnest. Initially this took the form of military assistance, in that a Roman army assisted the mainland Greeks to defeat Philip V of Macedonia. The liberation of Greece was proclaimed at the Isthmian Games of 196 bc, but Roman troops remained in Greece, and in 146 bc Corinth was destroyed. Thereafter Rome increasingly dominated and controlled Greece through a series of individual relationships, a process that culminated in 27 bc when mainland Greece was constituted as the Roman province of Achaia. Pergamon passed to Rome in 133 bc, the remains of the lands of the Seleucids in 64 bc and Ptolemaic Egypt in 30 bc. Greek cities were ravaged in the Roman civil wars, and works of art were taken by Romans.

Peace was restored in 27 bc, when Augustus became Rome’s first emperor, and thereafter Greece was ruled by Roman imperial governors. The Greek language, far from being displaced by Latin, became the dominant language of the eastern Empire, and was widely studied in Rome; the Roman Emperor marcus Aurelius, emperor and philosopher, wrote his Meditations in Greek, and the Christian gospels written in the remote province of Judaea were composed in Greek. The period of Roman rule came to an end in ad 324, when the capital of the Empire was transferred from Rome to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople. Thereafter Greek culture was centred in the Byzantine Empire, which survived in Constantinople until the Turkish conquest of 1453 and in outposts such as Monemvasia in the Peloponnese until 1471.

The division of Roman history into periods is for the most part based on types of government. There have traditionally been three periods, but in the 20th century a fourth (which, like Byzantium, is beyond the scope of this book) has been added:

(i) The regal period (753–509 bc)

(ii) Republican Rome (509–27 bc)

(iii) Imperial Rome (27 bcad 324)

(iv) Late Antiquity (ad 324–650)

The city of Rome was traditionally said to have been founded 21 April 753 bc; thereafter four Latin kings (beginning with Romulus) were succeeded in 616 bc by three Etruscan kings. The Roman Republic was established, in the traditional chronology, in 509 bc, when the Romans expelled the Etruscan kings from Rome. This expulsion was political rather than cultural, in that Etruscan art and architecture, which had been influenced by Greek models, had already been absorbed by the Romans, who under Etruscan influence had begun to build substantial buildings and to fashion representational art. The Roman state occupied the southern part of central Italy, between the Etruscan cities to the north and the Greek cities to the south. A long process of invasion, subjugation and colonization gradually extended Roman influence, and by the 3rd century bc Rome dominated the Italian peninsula and was ready to expand abroad. That process began in 264 bc with the first of the Punic wars against Carthage, and ended a century later with the third Punic war and the destruction of Carthage in 146 bc, the same year in which Corinth was also destroyed; during this period Rome expanded throughout the length of the Mediterranean, which with some justification was called ‘our sea’ (mare nostrum). The conquest of Greece in 146 bc was a military success, but paradoxically was also a moment of cultural submission. As the Roman poet Horace said, ‘Greece, the captive, made her savage victor captive, and brought the arts into rustic Latium’ (Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio, Epistles II.i.156–7). Greek art was imported on a grand scale, and Roman art thereafter was in considerable measure a set of variations on Greek themes.

The most momentous change in Rome’s political history was the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire. The events that led to this change are now probably best known in the version dramatized by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Caesar contrived to become dictator for life, and on the Ides of March 44 bc he was assassinated by a group opposed to his dictatorship. In the turmoil that ensued, Octavian, Caesar’s adoptive son, defeated Mark Antony and his ally Cleopatra of Egypt, the last of the Mace-donian successors of Alexander the Great, in 31 bc. The title of ‘Augustus’ was bestowed on Octavian in 27 bc, so inaugurating a line of Roman emperors that was to rule for centuries. The end of the Roman Empire in the West was protracted, but three important events mark the stages of its decline. The first was the emperor Constantine’s transfer of the capital from Rome to Constantinople in ad 324. The second was the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in ad 410; the consequences of this event included the withdrawal of Roman armies from Western colonies such as Britain. The third was the deposition in ad 476 of Romulus Augustulus, a usurper (not recognised in Constantinople) who is commonly known as the last Roman Emperor in the West. Thereafter, in the period now known as Late Antiquity, Classical civilization lived on in attenuated form until the Muslim conquests of the mid-7th century filled the political and cultural vacuum occasioned by the collapse of the Roman Empire. This book is organised within these temporal and cultural boundaries, all of which are carried forward by the ever-evolving discipline of Classical archaeology. The discipline ranges chronologically from the rise of the Minoan, Cycladic, Helladic and Etruscan cultures in the 2nd millennium bc to the civilizations of Greece and the Roman republic and empire, concluding with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Geographically, it is centred in the ancient Mediterranean, but extends to civilizations with which Greeks and Romans interacted, such as the Punic, Nabataean and Seleucid cultures (see Punic art, Nabataea and Seleucids), and to Roman provinces in Western Europe. Within this broad framework, there are hundreds of articles on individual areas, islands and cities, and on a wide range of art forms. Some authors use the word ‘Classical’ in a sense that excludes Jewish and Christian art and architecture of the period, but I have included many examples of such forms (e.g. the cycle of wall paintings in the synagogue at Dura europos), because they fall within the period and were influenced by the art of Greece or Rome.

Classical archaeologists continue to excavate buildings and artefacts, and such discoveries often occasion a reassessment of the genre of the building or the artefact. The intellectual culture of Classical archaeology is also subject to constant reassessment by its practitioners. The discipline was born in the Renaissance, when archaeology was the handmaiden of literature, and this perspective lay behind the subsequent concentration on sites with literary associations (e.g. Delphi). In later centuries collecting (particularly of sculpture, but occasionally of entire buildings) led to the investigation of sites that yielded many artefacts (e.g. Pergamon), but legal restrictions on exports have reduced the importance of this motive, except within the criminal community. In the 18th century johann joachim Winckelmann provided an intellectual and historical framework for the discipline that transformed its intellectual outlook. In the late 19th and 20th centuries new directions included early cultures (e.g. heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Sir arthur Evans at Knossos) and, within the Classical period, sites that have no literary or historical associations; such sites can supply evidence of practices (e.g. farming in arid regions) that are not otherwise documented in the historical record. In the late 20th century, a generation of Classical archaeologists borrowed from their colleagues in ancient history an enthusiasm for social and economic history; the uses of buildings and statues and decorative objects came under renewed critical scrutiny, and Classical archaeologists began to contribute substantially to the investigation of artefacts for the light they throw on ancient societies, rather than the other way round; the current benchmark for this new approach is James Whitley’s The Archaeology of Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 2001). Finally, in the closing years of the 20th century, young Classical archaeologists began to borrow insights from other disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology and cultural theory. These approaches are controversial, but certain benefits include an extension of the range of objects studied in depth (see, for example, the newly commissioned material on Roman private portraiture, including portrayals of women, under Sculpture, §VI, 1(ii) and examinations of the ideological assumptions of the discipline, which has sometimes been annexed to nationalist causes.

These developments within the discipline of Classical archaeology have contributed to the shape of this volume. The other important influence on content has been my sense of its audiences, of which I should like to identify three. First, the book has been written for students who may be studying Classical civilization and need a self-contained account of a particular site or object or type of object; second, it has been written for a broader public, perhaps one that will consult the book in public libraries, with an interest in Classical art and architecture or an intention to visit a museum with a Classical collection or to travel to see the visible remains of Greece and Rome; third, it is written for specialists in the field who may wish for information on a site of which they have no first-hand knowledge. For the first two groups, I have tried to ensure that all terms in Greek and Latin are translated and that technical architectural terms are clearly explained; for the last group I have included bibliographical items in a wide range of languages.

The notion of Classical beauty is rightly subject to interrogation, but its power can still be felt in the ideal of the perfected body encouraged by the modern cults of celebrity and fitness, and in the extent to which modern viewers remain in thrall to the beauty of ancient art, particularly sculpture. Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote in To Helen of how the ‘Classical’ beauty of a friend’s mother ‘brought me home/To the glory that was Greece/And the grandeur that was Rome’. I hope that users of this book who are new to Classical art and architecture will be afforded a glimpse of that glory and grandeur.


Leicester, 2007