Classical antiquity

An Understanding of the Classical Antiquity Era and its Art

Classical Antiquity is a long period of Mediterranean-centered culture. It begins with Homer’s poetry (8th to 7th BCE), continues through the birth of Christianity and the decline of the Western Roman Empire (fifth century CE). Finally, it ends with the breakdown of classical civilization in Late Antiquity (300—600 CE). Such a comprehensive history and geographical sample span various societies and times. “Classical antiquity” alludes to subsequent people’s romanticized view of “the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome!”

The contemporary world’s foundations are the Classic Age as reinterpreted during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which led to liberal humanism. For others, God’s moral status as the inventor of values and the director of history happened to be overtaken by Classic Age trust in the human intellect. Positively, the modern universal viewpoint, regard for human dignity, hunger for knowledge, and desire to improve the human lot can all be linked back to the Classical tradition. The relevance of the classical to the modern means that human experience is continuous and ancient ideals are relevant now.

Classical Antiquity Era in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece
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Ancient Greece is a time in Greek history that lasted for about a thousand years until Christianity spread. Most historians think of it as the culture in which the building of Western civilization happened. Greek culture significantly impacted the Roman Empire, extending it to many parts of Europe.

Ancient Greek culture has significantly impacted the modern world’s language, politics, education systems, philosophy, science, art, and architecture. For example, it helped spark the Renaissance in Western Europe and inspired many neoclassical movements in the Americas and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the past, the world where people spoke Greek was called “ancient Greece”. It’s a cultural term for places where ancient Greeks established colonies and the location of the contemporary Greek peninsula. These areas include Cyprus and the Aegean islands, the Aegean coast of Anatolia, Sicily, and southern Italy. It also includes the scattered Greek settlements on the shores of Colchis, Illyria, Thrace, Egypt, Cyrenaica, and southern Gaul.

The Hellenistic period in Greek history was between Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BCE and Rome’s takeover of the Greek peninsula and islands in 146 BCE. Hellenistic society and culture stayed pretty much the same until the spread of Christianity after the Romans took over. However, the end of Greek political independence happened eventually due to Roman rule.

Classical Antiquity Era in Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome
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Ancient Rome was a society that grew out of the city-state of Rome, on the Italian Peninsula around 800 BCE. During the 12 centuries of Roman civilization, it changed from a monarchy to an oligarchy to a large empire. Through conquest and integration, it ruled over all of Western Europe and the area around the Mediterranean Sea. But in the end, the Roman Empire fell apart because of several things. First, the western half of the empire, including Hispania, Gaul, and Italy, split into independent kingdoms in the fifth century. Then, after 476 CE, the “fall of Rome” and the beginning of the Middle Ages happened. Eventually, the eastern empire, which Constantinople dominated, became known as the Byzantine Empire.

The grouping of Roman civilization often happens along with ancient Greece. The Greeks influenced much of Roman culture into “classical antiquity”. Ancient Rome significantly impacted the development of Western law, war, art, literature, architecture, and language. Its history still substantially affects the world today. Ancient Rome was a republic, and even after it became an empire, the republic’s institutions continued. The “city-state” or “polis,” the primary way Greeks ran their government, gave way to kingdoms with a strong central authority, which tended to be dictatorial.

Religion got more attention from the government, and the expectation from people was to follow the rules. However, the Greeks took their faith seriously. Still, they never took it too seriously because they knew their myths were just human emotions and conflicts painted on a divine canvas. It put people at the center of the moral universe and valued free inquiry into the causes of events, the meaning and purpose of life, and the meaning of life itself.

History of Classical Antiquity Era Art

History of Classical Antiquity Era Art
Credit: Pixabay

Archaic Greece (about 800-500 BCE)

After migrations from southern Europe and the Black Sea area caused turmoil in the Eastern Mediterranean around 800 BCE, Ancient Greece rose in affluence and power. 776 CE saw the first Olympic Games in Olympia, while 750 saw the first Greek alphabet. During the Archaic era, Ancient Greece stood on the edge of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It continued to adopt Middle Eastern influences in art, religion, and mythology. The Archaic period ended with the overthrow of Athens’ last tyrant and the start of Athenian democracy (508 BCE). Geometric, Oriental, and Black-Figure ceramics define Greek Archaic art. The standing naked youngster (kouros) and the standing draped girl are examples of sculptures from this time (kore).

Classical Antiquity Era of Ancient Greece (about 500-323 BCE)

Classical Antiquity is the apogee of Greek civilization and the foundation of Western civilization. The Romans disseminated Greek culture across their empire. Ancient Greek concepts and values have influenced modern art and architecture, especially during Europe and America’s Renaissance and Neoclassical periods. Humanist aesthetics and Greek art’s high technical standards dominated Western academic art until the late 19th century.

Athens and the Delian League dominated the Classical Period until 400 BCE, after Persia’s defeat. Sparta dominated briefly before Thebes, and the Boeotian League took over. Macedon’s League of Corinth controlled the last phase. Classical Period architecture included the Parthenon. The chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia (466-435 BCE) was one of the Antipater of Sidon’s Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Hellenistic Period of Ancient Greece (323–27 BCE)

The Hellenistic period of Classical Antiquity spans from Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BCE to the Roman victory at Actium in 31 BCE and the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt. As a result, Greek civilization spread over the Mediterranean Basin, Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the West, Roman art had its basis on Greek models. At the same time, in the East, Alexander the Great’s conquests led to centuries of Greek influence on Levantine, Central Asian, and Indian cultures, resulting in Greco-Buddhist art that influenced Japan. In addition, Hellenism provided a fresh, often edgy expressionism, like the Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE). Greek Hellenistic art includes the Venus de Milo (130-100 BCE, Louvre) and Laocoon and His Sons (42-20 BCE, Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums), and the Pergamon Altar of Zeus (166-156 BCE).

Classical Antiquity Era of Rome (27 BCE – 330 CE)

This period spans the Roman defeating the Egyptians and Constantine’s creation of Byzantium. Thus, Constantinople was the Roman Empire’s eastern capital in 330 CE. It saw the glorifying of Rome via the production of thousands of portrait busts of Roman emperors and nobles. This period gets its characteristics from outstanding Roman architecture, such as the Pont Du Gard Aqueduct, Nimes, France (19 BCE), the Colosseum, Rome (72-80 CE), the Pantheon, Rome (128 CE), and the Arch of Constantine, Rome (312 CE). It’s also well portrayed by Roman relief sculptures, such as the Ara Pacis Augustae (“Altar of Augustan Peace”), Rome (13-9 BCE), Trajan’s Column, Rome (106-113 CE), the Column of Antoninus Pius (161 CE, Campus Martius, Rome), and the Column of Marcus Aurelius (193 CE, Rome).

Classical Antiquity Era of Christianity (330-472 CE)

The final phase of Classical Antiquity encompasses Christianization until Anthemius’ (420-472 CE) death (ruled 467 to 472 CE). After Rome’s destruction, Ravenna became the new Western capital of the Roman Empire, which was in terminal decline as Barbarians invaded its boundaries. The Dark Ages brought four centuries of cultural stagnation to Europe. The Ravenna Mosaics (from 400 CE) and the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna (527-546 CE) are cultural landmarks of the Christian Period of Classical Antiquity (405 CE).

Concepts and Styles of Classical Antiquity Era Art

Greek Architecture
Credit: Pixabay

The Golden Ratio

The Greeks thought truth and beauty were linked, and philosophers defined beauty mathematically. Socrates remarked, “Measure and proportion reveal themselves in all fields of beauty and virtue,” while Aristotle promoted the golden mean, or the middle road, which avoided extremes. Symmetry, harmony, and proportion defined beauty for the Greeks. Pythagoras (6th century BCE) and Euclid (323-283 BCE) identified the golden ratio as the most attractive proportion. The golden ratio shows that the ratio between two items is the same as their total. The Parthenon (447-432 BCE) used the golden ratio and was considered flawless. The golden ratio is called phi in honor of Phidias, who oversaw the temple’s construction. The golden ratio influenced later artists and architects, including Vitruvius, whose ideals influenced the Renaissance. This is evident in Leon Battista Alberti’s work and theories and Le Corbusier.

Greek Architecture

Greek architecture, most renowned for its temples, stressed formal coherence. The construction sculpted a hillside. Greeks produced Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, which were part of Rome’s and most of Europe’s and America’s architectural lexicon. The difference between the orders gets its basis from the columns, their capitals, and the entablature above them. The Doric order uses smooth or fluted columns with round capitals, while the entablature adds a more intricate architectural aspect. The Ionic column’s capital has volutes, or scrolls, while the entablature has a narrative frieze. The late Classical Corinthian order, named for Corinth, is the most ornamental, utilizing acanthus-leaf capitals.

Roman Engineering

Roman architecture is nicknamed the Roman Architectural Revolution or the Concrete Revolution because of the 3rd-century creation of concrete. The progress of technology allowed architects to use the arch, barrel vault, groin vault, and dome instead of brick and stone. These improvements led to monumental architecture like the Colosseum and civil engineering projects like aqueducts, apartment complexes, and bridges. They invented the segmental arch, a flattened arch used in bridges and homes, the extended arch, and the triumphal arch, commemorating emperors’ achievements. The dome was their most significant contribution to Western culture. Though influenced by the Etruscans and Greeks, Romans employed columns, porticos, and entablatures even when technical developments no longer required them structurally.

Artistic Vase

Artistic Vase Classical Antiquity

Greek vase painting shows how Greek painting emphasized the human figure and progressed toward realism. Early styles were geometric, influenced by Mycenaean art, but gradually changed to stylized human figures. An “Orientalizing” era followed, with Eastern elements, like the sphinx, followed by a black figure style that utilized more detail and symbolic modeling.

The Classical antiquity era established the red-figure style of vase painting, which outlined figures against a black background and painted details instead of incising clay. Even the color and line thickness variations allowed for more rounded forms than Geometric vases.

Roman Art

Greek and Roman painters developed breakthroughs in fresco and panel painting. Most of the knowledge about Greek painting comes from pottery and Etruscan and Roman murals. They got their influence from Greek painters and were sometimes painted by them when the Greeks settled in Southern Italy. Hades Abducting Persephone (4th century BCE) at the Vergina tombs in Macedonia is a rare example of a Classical antiquity era mural painting and parallels their sculpting works.

The 1748 excavation of Pompeii, a Roman city devastated by Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, led to the discovery of well-preserved frescos in renowned Roman villas, including the House of the Vettii, the Villa of Mysteries, and the House of the Tragic Poet. Mythological stories, Trojan war tales, historical records, religious ceremonies, sensual scenes, landscapes, and still lifes were favorites. The walls’ painting made them look like marble or alabaster, with illusionary beams or cornices.

Greek Sculpture

Influenced by the Egyptians, the Greeks in the Archaic era began constructing life-sized sculptures. Instead of pharaohs or gods, Greek sculpture mainly consisted of kouroi, of which there were three types: a naked young man, a clothed and standing young lady, and a sitting woman. The utilization of the sculptures happened as burial monuments, civic memorials, and votive statues. They stressed realistic anatomy and human movement rather than a specific figure.

In the late Archaic era, circa 500 BCE, the Greeks began using the lost-wax process. Large sculptures were cast in parts and welded together, with copper inlay for eyes, teeth, lips, fingernails, and nipples.

Phidias was known for his Athena Parthenos statue (447 BCE) at the Parthenon on the Acropolis and his Zeus statue at Olympia (435 BCE), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The making of both sculptures happened of wood with gilded panels and ivory limbs.

Roman Portraiture

Romans copied many Greek sculptures, but they contributed portraiture to Classical sculpture. Romans believed that presenting famous persons with flaws was a sign of character. In Imperial Rome, portraiture became idealistic as emperors, beginning with Augustus, sought to portray themselves as heirs of ancient Greece and Roman history. The Augustan Ara Pacis has a Greco-Roman style in sculpted relief (13 BCE).

Romans resurrected Greek glass paintings for portraits. Most pictures were drinking vessel medallions or roundels. Wealthy Romans had drinking cups fashioned with gilded glass portraits of themselves; after death, the cementing of the images into catacomb walls as grave markers happened.

Fayum mummy portraits are some of the most renowned Roman paintings, named for the Egyptian site where their excavation took place. The production of most mummy portraits happened during the 1st and 3rd centuries BCE, while Egypt was under Roman domination. As a result, the idealizing of the paintings are personal and realistic.

Examples of Classical Antiquity Era Art

The Parthenon (447-432 BCE)

The Parthenon Classical Antiquity
Credit: Pixabay

This temple to Athena, goddess of knowledge and patron of Athens, is atop the Acropolis, a holy complex overlooking the city. 17 Doric columns on each side and eight at each end produce harmonic balance and horizontal flow. The building exemplifies the Doric order and rectangular plan of Greek temples, emphasizing movement and light between the temple’s interior and the surrounding space. The movement of the columns, rising from the earth to the entablature that rings the building, draws the eye heavenward to the carved reliefs and statues.

Ictinus and Callicrates were the architects, and Phidias and Pericles oversaw the project. The Parthenon’s design used exact golden ratio proportions. The columns use entasis, swelling at the middle of each column, and tilt inward. At the same time, the foundation rises toward the façade, accounting for the optical illusion of drooping and tilting that would have resulted in straight lines.

Roman Marble Imitation of The Dying Gaul (230-220 BCE)

The Dying Gaul Classical Antiquity
Credit: Travel Diaries

This Roman replica of a Greek Hellenistic work portrays a naked and dying Gaul or Galatian from Pergamon, a Greek city in Turkey. Sitting on the ground with his left hand on his left knee and his right hand on a shattered sword, he contemplates his death. His stretched legs and torso twist depict anguish and collapse. The tension between tightened and relaxed muscles indicates his fight against death. The work’s melancholy and sad mood reflects defeat and mortality, yet his physical beauty shows a heroic death.

The statue was unearthed in the early 1600s at Villa Ludovisi, the rural home of a wealthy Italian family, and was thought to resemble a Roman gladiator. Viewing it became part of the 18th- and 19th-century Grand Tour for young nobles.

Winged Victory of Samothrace (200-190 BCE)

Winged Victory of Samothrace
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This gigantic sculpture showing Nike, the goddess of triumph, was constructed to commemorate a naval victory. The goddess rushes forward, carried by the wind, her wings outstretched. Jansen said, “This unseen force of onrushing air balances the figure’s forward movement and creates the drapery’s folds. We’ve never witnessed such a dynamic interplay between a monument and its surrounding area.” The 18-foot-tall Hellenistic statue rests on a pedestal resembling a ship’s prow. Most academics assume the piece was initially at the Sanctuary of the Greek Gods on Samothrace.

Augustus of Prima Porta (1st Century CE)

Augustus of Prima Porta Classical Antiquity
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This statue represents Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, in military costume, addressing the Roman soldiers and the public. Polycleitus’ Doryphorus inspire the emperor’s contrapposto posture, muscular armor, and indifferent look. His breastplate has beautiful carvings of images and characters identifying him as a military leader, builder of the Pax Romana, and successor of Rome’s mythical and historical traditions. A little cupid rides a dolphin to Augustus’ right, symbolizing his triumph over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Cupid, representing Eros, a son of Venus, relates to Julius Caesar’s claim to be her descendant. As Caesar’s grandnephew and adoptive successor, Augustus establishes his heavenly inheritance and links it to Aeneas, the sole human son of Venus and the last living Trojan prince.

Pantheon (113-125 CE)

Pantheon Classical Antiquity
Credit: Pixabay

The circular temple has a majestic entryway with eight Corinthian columns in front and two rows of four columns behind. The façade, recalling the Parthenon’s octastyle, emphasized Rome’s ancient heritage. Large granite columns support an entablature inscribed “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made this while consul for the third time.” Hadrian restored Agrippa’s temple, constructed by Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), with the original inscription. The building’s novel and the distinguishing feature was its 142-foot-tall, unreinforced concrete dome. “Pantheon” means “related to the gods.” Experts disagree on whether the temple happened to have its dedication to all gods or a unique divinity. When Agrippa erected the temple, it was part of the Agrippa complex (29-19 BCE) that also featured the Baths of Agrippa and the Basilica of Neptune. Only the façade of his original construction remains.


The term “Classical antiquity” refers to how people from more recent times think about ancient Greek and Roman culture. It’s still a vision that many people find appealing in the twenty-first century. Respect for the ancient Greeks and Romans changed politics, philosophy, sculpture, literature, theater, education, architecture, and sexuality. Classical art and architecture have considerably impacted all Western art movements and periods, so it’s hard to put a number on it. Roman architecture and Greek art influenced the Romanesque and Byzantine periods. However, the Italian Renaissance, which got its basis on a renewed interest in Classical principles, philosophy, and aesthetic ideals, was influenced mainly by Classical Antiquity Era art.

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