Thursday, 28 March 2013

The origins of ancient Greek art: summary

The Riace bronzes, recovered from
the sea in 1972
Classical Greece saw a relatively brief flowering of unusual brilliance in many fields, including theatre, mathematics, philosophy, sculpture, history, technology and painting. I haven’t tried to summarise these well-documented achievements. Nor do I dispute them. My aim in the last few articles has instead been to put Classical Greek art into context and analyse why it happened.

There was of course nothing innately superior about the people living in Greece – happily, contemporary historians avoid the gushings of the last few centuries. And there was no shortage of brilliance among contemporary cultures such as Persia. The Axis Age saw extraordinary cultural leaps in several centres of world culture, and so-called ‘golden ages’ are found elsewhere in history too. India, for example, enjoyed a particularly brilliant period during the Gupta empire of c.320 to 550 CE. When Arnold Hauser refers in The Social History of Art to the ‘native genius’ of the Greeks, we may well wonder where that genius was hiding for the few thousand years before Homer or the two thousand after the Roman conquest, during which – with all due respect – Greek cultural achievement has been much nearer the average.

There was an intensity and innovation in Classical Greece, peaking in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, which can be explained as a particular combination of elements.

The fragmentation of Greece into relatively isolated city-states, and the absence therefore of a hegemonic ruling class and religion, helped open the door to democracy and individualism. The economic revival from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE onwards, assisted by the spread of iron technology, bankrolled an anti-monarchic oligarchy, opened up contacts with the wider Mediterranean and Eastern worlds, and provided resources for cultural investment – a revival later intensified in the epicentre, Athens, by silver mining and imperial tribute.

The advent of literate culture encouraged public debate and scientific inquiry. The Greeks inherited the best of the discoveries of their Iron Age contemporaries – the Phoenician alphabet, Babylonian astronomy, Egyptian sculpture, etc – and assimilated them into a theoretical culture that laid everything open to question. We can credit them with the invention of democracy, history and drama.

The foundations of Classical Greek art rest on a number of factors of which only one – democracy – was unique to Greece. However, it was the individualism which flowed from mass political participation that is probably the most powerful element in defining the art of Greece as against the art of contemporary cultures, underlying its (relative) orientation to the human over the divine, its realism, its observation of nature, and its interest in a sense of time as actually experienced. It was in the wake of the closing down of the democratic revolution by Alexander and the Romans that the world cultural significance of Greek achievements faded.

A millenium and a half later, the achievements of Classical Greece would be selectively fished out of history by the young bourgeoisie and claimed as ancestors, to legitimise their own revolutionary worldview and to create a narrative about the origins of ‘Western’ civilisation which persists to this day. There is some truth in the narrative, but it has been exaggerated by propaganda, Eurocentrism and racism. The West’s debt to the civilisations of the East is at least as immense.

The Classical Greeks created an art which achieved vitality, clarity and harmony, and like any major art, it belongs to all the world.

Terry Eagleton on Marx and the Greeks

I reproduce below a passage by Terry Eagleton from his book Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976). His section on ‘Literature and Superstructure’ includes an interesting comment on Marx and Greek art.

The materialist theory of history denies that art can in itself change the course of history; but it insists that art can be an active element in such change. Indeed, when Marx came to consider the relation between base and superstructure, it was art which he selected as an instance of the complexity and indirectness of that relationship:

In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation, the skeletal structure, as it were, of its organisation. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare. It is even recognised that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. If this is the case with the relation between different kinds of art within the realm of art, it is already less puzzling that it is the case in the relation of the entire realm to the general development of society. The difficulty consists only in the general formulation of these contradictions. As soon as they have been specified, they are already clarified.[1]

Marx is considering here what he calls ‘the unequal relationship of the development of material production... to artistic production’. It does not follow that the greatest artistic achievements depend upon the highest development of the productive forces, as the example of the Greeks, who produced major art in an economically undeveloped society, clearly evidences. Certain major artistic forms like the epic are only possible in an undeveloped society. Why then, Marx goes on to ask, do we still respond to such forms, given our historical distance from them?:

But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.

Why does Greek art still give us aesthetic pleasure? The answer which Marx goes on to provide has been universally lambasted by unsympathetic commentators as lamely inept:

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naivete, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. (It) is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone rise, can never return.

So our liking for Greek art is a nostalgic lapse back into childhood – a piece of unmaterialist sentimentalism which hostile critics have gladly pounced on. But the passage can only be treated thus if it is rudely ripped from the context to which it belongs – the draft manuscripts of 1857, known today as the Grundrisse. Once returned to that context, the meaning becomes instantly apparent. The Greeks, Marx is arguing, were able to produce major art not in spite of but because of the undeveloped state of their society. In ancient societies, which have not yet undergone the fragmenting ‘division of labour’ known to capitalism, the overwhelming of ‘quality’ by ‘quantity’ which results from commodity-production and the restless, continual development of the productive forces, a certain ‘measure’ or harmony can be achieved between man and Nature – a harmony precisely dependent upon the limited nature of Greek society. The ‘childlike’ world of the Greeks is attractive because it thrives within certain measured limits – measures and limits which are brutally overridden by bourgeois society in its limitless demand to produce and consume. Historically, it is essential that this constricted society should be broken up as the productive forces expand beyond its frontiers; but when Marx speaks of ‘striv(ing) to reproduce its truth at a higher stage’, he is clearly speaking of the communist society of the future, where unlimited resources will serve an unlimitedly developing man.

[1] Introduction to the Grundrisse.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Ancient Greece: Making sculpture their own

To gain an insight into how ancient Greece transformed artistic conventions to create their own aesthetic, we may take a lesson from one of their most renowned achievements: sculpture.

Classical Greek sculpture probably had its beginnings in the assimilation of Near Eastern and Egyptian styles during what we now call the Archaic period (ca. 700–450 BC). The colonisation of the Mediterranean coast and the opening of new trade routes introduced Greek artists to Eastern imagery such as composite beasts – griffins, sphinxes – and palmette and lotus motifs. Herodotus claims in the Histories that Greeks and Egyptians began to interact during the reign of the Pharaoh Psammetichus I, who came to power in 664 BCE. The Egyptians possessed great skills in cutting, transporting and carving huge pieces of stone, and their monumental stone statues and architecture seem to have made a profound impression on the Greeks, who in the second half of the seventh century began to imitate them on a smaller scale back home.

But whereas Egyptian statues are schematic and rigid, we know Greek sculpture as naturalistic and fluid in movement. To understand why sculpture took such different forms in the two societies, we need to look back to the arguments made in the last few articles.

Breathing new life into traditional art

The first step toward the sculpture of Classical Greece was the appearance of human figures known as kouros (male) and kore (female) statues, in the 7th century BCE. These youthful statues seem to have been used as dedications to gods and as tomb monuments. They have a visible relationship to Egyptian models, with stiff upright posture, one foot taking a step forwards, youthful curls mimicking the pharaonic headdress. This sort of stylisation meant that, like the Egyptians, Greek sculptors could produce figures according to a formula.

Egypt meets Greece. On the left, statue of the mayor Nen-kheft-ka, ca 2350 BCE. On the right, one of a pair of marbles depicting Kleobis and Biton, ca. 580 BC.

However, democracy introduced into Greek society a completely different spiritual dynamic. Egyptian statues attempt to impress us with the eternal truth of religion and class hierarchy. As we have been arguing, the Greek context of many city states, with no centralised nobility, and a democratic system granting freedom of speech even to a section of the masses, influenced the cultural conditions in which Greek art was created. The influence of individualism and a new interest in the human over the divine led Greek artists to gradually become interested in representing particular, lifelike human beings, and to this end sought to depict what they saw, rather than what they had been told or thought they knew. For these reasons, Greek sculpture moved away from the rigid Egyptian model.

The kouros is always on a human rather than a monumental scale. Whereas an Egyptian statue was often supported by a pillar, the kouros supports itself, and it is tempting to read this as a symbol of greater confidence in human capacities. We see an increasing secularism in the gradual appearance of artists’ or patrons’ names carved onto the pedestals, and the smile that plays on the statues’ lips breathes human expression into lifeless stone. The sculptors kept striving for ever greater realism in features and anatomy, and by the early fifth century BCE, the kouros had relaxed and become more natural.

The Kritios Boy. Photo: Tetraktys.

The Kritios (or Kritian) Boy, a statue dating to around 480 BCE, illustrates how the kouros had been brought to life. The sculptor sees the figure as a system of parts that is in balance: the left leg takes the weight while the right bends at the knee, subtly shifting the torso. The anatomy is accurate but graceful. This statue is clearly the product of trying to capture the pose of actual standing figures through careful observation. It represents the last phase of the kouros, and is the immediate precursor to the athletes and heroes of Classical Greek sculpture.

Classical sculpture

In the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, now known as the Classical period of Greek art, we see a revolutionary leap to a new form. Greek sculptors had thoroughly mastered the technical aspects of working marble. They had the advantage of iron tools and might model in clay, making moulds to allow for casting with bronze. They also began to produce work that celebrated expressiveness and movement in a way never seen before in sculpture. By studying how nature actually worked, they could show subtle variations in poses and drapery. This took sculpture in a direction quite unlike the Greeks’ contemporaries.

The human body was explored through its anatomy, its three-dimensionality, and its potential for aesthetic grace. The sculptor Polykleitos wrote a treatise or Canon that discussed mathematical proportions for the human figure while exploring how a figure could be brought to life through the counterbalance of relaxed and tensed parts. The Greeks also portrayed subjects that existed in ‘human’ time, such as in Myron’s Discobolus, a statue of a discus-thrower paused at the dramatic moment before the discus is released.

This approach introduced an unprecedented vitality into sculpture. By all accounts, sculptors such as Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippos and others created elegant works which brought this balance of realism and idealism to an unprecedented perfection. Tragically, only a tiny portion of original Greek sculpture has survived. But the fact that we know their names, and that they were renowned even when alive, is revealing about the permeation of individualism into Greek culture at a time when so much artistic work was anonymous.

We are used to seeing Greek sculpture in the pure white of exposed marble, so our usual image of these works is rather severe. The contemporary reality was different: pigment traces reveal that statues and temples were painted in vivid colours. Bettany Hughes has evoked how Athens must have looked:

Athens was a territory where the breathing population was watched by beautifully worked stone and metal men – idealised versions of humankind, an embodiment of the democratic Athenians’ ambition. Sculptures – bronze, marble, wood – all dressed in real clothes as if they suffered hot and cold like any other human, lined the sanctuaries, the roads, the colonnades, the law-courts. Only a tiny fraction of the bronze statuary cast in Athens in the fifth century remains, so it can be easy to underestimate just what a packed, ever-expanding site-specific gallery this city was, the public spaces populated by crowds of silent humans. Silent, but not muted. With a showman’s urge to make their new attraction (in this case, the show city of democracy) as gaudy as any Persian king’s court or Babylonian tyrant’s processional way, the Athenians stage-set demos-kratia. Statues, monuments, temples, democratic courts were all painted and stained in Technicolour. The stark application and gloopy pigments used would shock most of us today, but these were designed to be seen under the bright Attic sun, and their gaudy glory to be remembered. [1]

The Greeks would have seen their sculpture not as sterile and cold, mounted on a museum wall, but as exuberant, arrogant and buoyant with life [2].

A comment on aesthetic value

Is Greek sculpture better than Egyptian or other Eastern sculpture because of its innovations? It is surely more vital and naturalistic, and this will usually be more to the Western taste, but it would be a mistake to claim that the Greeks or their culture were ‘superior’ to the East. This is a myth constructed from the Renaissance onwards to justify Eurocentrism and racism. The Egyptians were perfectly capable of realist sculpture, as we see from examples such as the famous head of Nefertiti, and they were also capable of great vitality, as in the paintings from Nebamun’s tomb. The reason they did not develop these skills in the same direction as the Greeks was that their cultural needs were different. It is the material and ideological conditions of a culture that define most powerfully the particular qualities of its art.

In Classical Greece, these conditions included a fragmented ruling class, democracy and individualism, and a newly literate culture that encouraged inquiry into the natural world. The result was a balance between their delight in naturalism and a very traditional desire for order and proportion. Some cultures adopted this art as an aesthetic standard, others chose to physically smash it; either way, it was characteristically Greek.

[1] Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (2010).
[2] The colour restoration work of German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann offers us an insight into how ancient Greek sculpture looked in its heyday.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Axis Age

The culture of the classical Greeks is justly renowned. But it was far from a unique flowering of enlightenment in an era of despotic darkness. It was one part of a larger story.

A few hundred years from around 800 to 200 BCE witnessed a major re-evaluation of the Bronze Age legacy across human civilisation. Four great cultural centres in particular laid spiritual and philosophical foundations that have profoundly influenced human society to the present day: ancient Israel, classical Greece, Buddhist India and Confucian China.

Greece produced the poetry of Homer, the philosophy of Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates and Aristotle; Platonism would become a major influence on Western thought, including Christianity, for centuries.

In India, a prodigious blooming of intellectual and spiritual life produced philosophers including atheists and materialists among their number; the 6th–5th century BCE (the dates are disputed) brought us the teachings of the Buddha; in the 6th century BCE Jainism was founded; Hindu philosophy produced the Upanishads and in the 5th–2nd century BCE the Bhagavad Gita as part of the epic Mahabharata.

In China, Confucius (551–479 BCE) and his followers produced the Analects, and the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu (traditionally 6th century BCE), produced the Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing). These have been the most widely read and studied texts in China.

In Palestine, the great Hebrew prophets – Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah – laid the foundations of the Abrahamic religions, producing the canonical texts of the Hebrew scriptures.

And we should add that in Persia, possibly around the 7th–6th centuries BCE, Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) founded a philosophy and monotheistic religion that survives to this day.

These currents of thought, giving us the first real classics of literature, seem to have arisen more or less independently, all of them asking very modern questions about the nature of reality and humanity’s place in it. It is striking that so many seminal figures were alive at the same time and many could even have met each other. Clearly, humanity in this period was bringing traditional practices and beliefs into question and speculating with great creativity about how to conceive and change the world. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers described this as the Axis or Axial Age: “the point most overwhelmingly fruitful in fashioning humanity” [1] – the axis or hinge upon which world history turned.

Merlin Donald on theoretic culture

Over a space of few centuries humanity experienced a leap to a new level of intellectual sophistication. So what was happening here?

An insight into this phase of human civilisation was proposed by the Canadian psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald in his book Origins of the Modern Mind. Donald argued that human cognition had passed through three broad stages. Early humans made a transition from the ‘episodic’ cognition of animals to a ‘mimetic’ stage, characteristic of Homo erectus, which features gesture and non-verbal communication. The next transition, concluding with our species, Homo sapiens, was the ‘mythic’, which featured language and narrative thought. The final stage was the ‘theoretic’, representing the emergence of institutionalised, theoretical thought. This development depended upon the expansive use of external memory storage, which in most cases requires writing. Instead of relying upon oral culture and upon human biological memory, human culture invented written archives, as well as the other existing ways of recording our ideas such as monuments and works of art.

Put into Donald’s terms, the Axis Age was the period of human history in which mimetic and mythic culture was joined by the theoretic. This was a cultural rather than a biological change, and it was profound. Literacy had been invented much earlier, but only now did humanity develop a truly literate culture. To put it simply, we shifted from oral tradition to libraries. External memory storage changed the way humans approached reality and its attendant puzzles such as religion, perception and society. Taking the Greeks as his example, Donald writes:

Our concern here is not so much with the history of science or philosophy per se as with the cognitive framework that enabled such accelerated change. How had the structure of human thought process changed? The answer appears to be at least partly that, in the ancient Greeks, all of the essential symbolic inventions were in place for the first time. The evolution of writing was complete; the Greeks had the first truly effective phonetic system of writing, so successful that it has not really been improved since. They also possessed advanced systems of numeration and geometric graphing. Astronomy had advanced considerably under the Babylonians, and the Greeks were aware of that body of knowledge, as they were of Egyptian mathematics. Moreover, their society was open, intensely competitive, and sufficiently wealthy that education went beyond the immediately pragmatic.

The key discovery that the Greeks made seems to have been a combinatorial strategy… In effect, the Greeks were the first to fully exploit the new cognitive architecture that had been made possible by visual symbolism.[2]

For the Phoenicians, writing was mostly a mercantile tool; in Greece, every educated male could read or write. The Greeks externalised their speculation upon reality through the widespread use of literature, which stored ideas in a more reliable and permanent form than was possible under the oral tradition. Written opinions on the natural world, law, sculpture, etc could be placed into the public domain to be analysed, discussed and improved upon, even after their originators had died. The Greeks “founded the process of externally coded cognitive exchange and discovery” (Donald), using external memory storage to create a collective social memory. Greek culture stepped out of the oral tradition dominant during Homer’s time and began the journey that culminated in the Library of Alexandria.

Although, because of a particular combination of elements, this process was perhaps most intense in Greece (their 5th century BCE heyday pivoting in the very centre of the Axis Age), it produced a systematic inquiry into the nature of things in four major centres of world culture. It did not spring up fully formed, it was uneven, and it drew heavily upon earlier innovations; nonetheless the Axis Age was not a historical coincidence but a fundamental cultural shift. This shift to libraries was much more significant than the modern age’s great ‘information’ innovation, namely the internet.

It is true that classical Greece produced some of the greatest achievements of the ancient world. But anyone who wishes to claim it as the single, direct ancestor of the West, or as a brilliant moment of uniquely European enlightenment, is required to ignore great swathes of historical context. He or she must become, as Edward Said put it:

someone who wants to make ‘civilisations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history.[3]

[1] Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (1949).
[2] Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind (1991).
[3] Edward Said, ‘The Clash of Ignorance’ (in The Nation, 2001). Said is commenting here on Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations, but the principle applies.

Ancient Greece: legacy to the West

Classical Greek culture has long been interpreted in the West [1] as the beginning of European civilisation. There is no doubt that Classical Greece was one of the great episodes in world culture. But it was not, of course, single in nature. Spread across the Mediterranean, conditioned by and conditioning other cultures, it was a complex phenomenon which archaeology is still piecing together.

Greece’s role as a spiritual ancestor is usually taken for granted in Western states, and on a certain level this is uncontroversial. It is written on the very streets in buildings like the Capitol in Washington, DC. However, the relationship was neither linear nor continual. As the historian Michael Wood observed:

Should we even view Greece as part of the West? The question may seem perverse, but where a Muslim scholar in tenth-century Baghdad would unquestionably have seen himself as the intellectual heir of classical Hellenism, the idea may never have occurred to a tenth-century scribe in England. She would have been familiar with some of its stories and myths; indebted too to the great patristic legacy in Greek; but she would hardly have thought herself its heir. Israel and Rome loomed far larger in her imagination.[2]

We mentioned in an earlier post that Minoan Crete should be seen not as the first ‘European’ civilisation so much as the westernmost expression of a development that began in the east. Ancient Greece occupied a similarly ambiguous position. The origins of Classical Greek culture can be traced back to the Near East and Egypt, partly via the Minoans and Mycenae, partly through their own direct contacts – early Greek sculpture for example is highly derivative of the Egyptian style. The Greeks owed a great deal to the Phoenicians, a Semitic culture from the coast of modern-day Lebanon, from whom they learnt to use an alphabet and to share other ideas, in sites like Al-Mina on the coast of modern Syria. The Ionian Greeks – inhabiting the colonies on the west coast of modern-day Turkey and in direct contact with Asia – benefited especially from their contact with Eastern ideas. It is true that the Greeks assimilated and transformed this cultural traffic to produce their own distinct, revolutionary culture. But as far as the Greeks do represent the beginning of Western civilisation, this means that the modern West, which is relatively very recent, ultimately finds its ancestry in the East. To draw a line at around the 8th century BCE on the Greek peninsula is somewhat arbitrary.

By 400 BCE Greek culture was already declining under the pressure of constant internecine war. As Wood points out:

Greece never united, remaining instead a land of warring city states, and in the mid-fourth century they fell to the brutal and vigorous Macedonians from the north. With that, Athens lost for good its cultural eminence which passed to the great Hellenistic foundations in Asia and North Africa, the powerhouses of a multi-racial empire which spread from the Balkans to India. It was the ideals of this Hellenistic Age, adapted by the Romans, which would be the first shapers of the Western tradition [my italics].

The identification of Greece as the birthplace of European civilisation was an invention of the Renaissance, when the early bourgeoisie was looking for legitimacy for its own secular, scientific, individualistic and imperialist worldview. In the Greeks they saw a certain correspondence of interests in the study of the natural world, realism in the arts, etc. But even then, Greek culture was seen through the mediation of Rome. It was really the Romans who laid down the foundations for the last two millennia of culture in Europe and its offshoots. It is no accident that bourgeois revolutionary France and the United States took inspiration from the Roman Republic, not democratic Greece; the model for their senates was Roman.

There are very practical reasons for this. The Roman legacy was one of organisation, administration, and importantly – beginning with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in about 312 AD – Christianity. The Roman policy of winning over sections of the ruling classes in the conquered territories created a culture that looked to Roman models even when the Romans had gone. For example, when in 800AD Charlemagne united most of western Europe for the first time since the Roman empire broke up four hundred years before, he was crowned Imperator Romanorum (‘Emperor of the Romans’), in Rome.

Another reason is the limited availability of original Classical Greek culture. The works from antiquity unearthed during the Renaissance and later at Pompeii and Herculaneum were Hellenistic or Roman. Even today, a great deal of Greece’s artistic legacy exists only second-hand. The closest thing we have to a full-scale Greek painting, for example, is the ‘Alexander mosaic’ from Pompeii [3] – itself possibly a Hellenistic work shipped to Italy, or a Roman recreation; and works like Myron’s Discobolus sculpture survive only as Roman copies of original works of higher artistic quality. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Europeans began to study the Classical Greeks directly. Even so, many now-famous Greek works were unknown to the West until relatively late: the Parthenon marbles weren’t brought to Britain until the early 19th century, and the ‘Riace bronzes’ were not fished from the sea until the 1970s.

The rational, self-critical European who is supposedly the enlightened inheritor of the Greeks didn’t appear until two thousand years after the heyday of Classical Greece, having in the meantime been immersed in the legacy not of Greece but of Rome – and the often bloody superstitions of feudal Christianity.

The line of continuity from ancient Greece to modernity was constructed by the bourgeoisie to add legitimacy to their own concerns. When reinventing the Greeks as spiritual ancestors, they concentrated upon the rational, scientific, humanist legacy rather than the bickering, superstition, sexism or blood-letting which were equally part of that culture. European history is a plentiful panorama from which subsequent generations can cherry-pick ideas and events which suit their ideological purposes, while ignoring other equally powerful ideas and events which don’t. One example of such an element of ancient art was its frankness about sexuality. The scale on which Greek and Roman art proudly sported genitalia and sex acts was utterly unacceptable to bourgeois Europe, which hid the offending objects from sight in museum vaults. Another is the participatory nature of Greek democracy – most modern bourgeois would be horrified by any proposal to allow direct votes for the working class about forty times a year, with terms of office lasting just one year, and the threat of exile hanging over politicians who earned popular disapproval.

Theories that recruited the achievements of Greece and Rome to ‘European’ culture were also used to support racism and justify colonialism, by claiming a superior ancestry of civilisation for white cultures. As we’ve touched upon above, Eurocentrists conveniently forget that the West owes its own achievements to an intellectual legacy not just from the Aegean, but from Sumer (the 60-minute hour and the invention of writing), Phoenicia (the alphabet) and Islam (Arabic numerals). Persia, the cartoon villain of ancient Greek history, gave us chess and backgammon, algebra and the medicinal use of alcohol [4].

In short, to understand ancient Greece we must also understand the wider trends of human culture at the time. For that reason the next post will place Greece in context, as one part of a seminal period in human history.

[1] By ‘the West’ I mean the dominant cultures of Western Europe and their offshoots in North America and elsewhere. Dating from the Renaissance, they may be identified as Christian, capitalist and materialist.
[2] Michael Wood, Legacy: A Search for the Origins of Civilisation (1999).
[3] The original may be a work mentioned by Pliny the Elder that depicted Alexander battling Darius, painted by Philoxenos of Eretria from the 4th century BCE.
[4] Anyone interested in Europe’s debt to other cultures will find M. Shahid Alam
s ‘How Eurocentric is Your Day?’ (2009) very interesting.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Ancient Greece: Economy

The advent of iron was a revolutionary forward step for human culture, allowing for increases in productivity. Iron was more durable than bronze, and iron tools improved agricultural efficiency; it was also abundant, and therefore cheaper. This was technology for the masses, becoming widespread in a way that the more expensive bronze could not. This social surplus helped make possible the building of new empires in Persia, China and India.

Although we think of Greece through its famous cities such as Athens, Sparta and Corinth, the dominant sector of the ancient economy was agriculture. As Perry Anderson explained:

The Graeco-Roman towns were never predominantly communities of manufacturers, traders or craftsmen: they were, in origin and principle, urban congeries of landowners… Their income derived from corn, oil and wine – the three great staples of the Ancient World, produced on estates and farms outside the perimeter of the physical city itself. Within it, manufactures remained few and rudimentary.[1]

This is not to say that urban trade was insignificant – in fact, it could make a decisive difference in a world dominated by agriculture. The key to trade for the ancient Greeks was the Mediterranean. It was far cheaper to ship goods across the sea than to transport it across land, and water gave the predominantly coastal Greek cities access to trade from Spain to Syria. This made possible an urban prosperity far more concentrated than the agricultural hinterlands, and dependent upon the great inland sea. Anderson concludes: “The Mediterranean, in other words, provided the necessary geographical setting for Ancient civilisation.”

From the 6th century BCE, the foundations were laid for classical Greek civilisation. Coinage, colonisation, population growth and competitive trade helped create the ‘tyrants’ who played such an important part in the class struggles that broke the aristocracy’s grip on power.

One of the concessions the tyrants made to the masses was the breaking up of aristocratic land monopolies, which was popular with farmers but limited Greek agriculture to the small to medium scale. Democracy also had a curtailing effect upon the power of the big landowners to exploit the citizenry. But there was a way to compensate for this cramping of productivity.


Class society was the means by which human beings massively increased their overall productivity and standard of living. The price for this greater material wellbeing was the division of people into classes according to their economic role, groupings that usually determined their entire lives. The limited productivity of ancient agriculture and industry could be increased by the gross exploitation of a section of the labour force – slavery.

Olive-gathering. Agriculture was a common use for
slave labour. 6th century BCE amphora by the
Antimenes painter.
It appears that slavery existed in many ancient cultures, but it is a complex phenomenon. It was not usually full-blown – i.e. human beings as chattel property – and played a marginal economic role, most production being based on the peasant-farmer. Slaves assigned to palaces, crafts or administrative work could actually enjoy a higher status and standard of living than toilers in the fields. Ancient Greece by contrast seems to have been the first culture to transform slavery into a mode of production. Slaves, who were mostly acquired as prisoners of war, worked the fields, served in households and laboured in construction, providing much of the labour power that fuelled Greek quarries, workshops and shipyards. In a few cases, slaves managed to buy their freedom, but slaves’ lives were normally hard, especially in the mines, and they had no rights whatsoever. The city of Sparta was unusual in keeping an entire population enslaved – the Messenian helots – though it may be more correct to see them as oppressed peasant labour rather than chattel property.

It is impossible to estimate exactly the number and proportion of slaves in the population, since no reliable records were made at the time. In Athens, slaves probably accounted for about one quarter of the population. The Greek economy never depended exclusively upon slave labour, but what matters is not numbers but the contribution slavery made to the production of the social surplus. As G.E.M. de Ste Croix argued, it was not that the bulk of production was done by slaves; in fact the combined production of various forms of free labour exceeded that of unfree labour. The significant thing is that the propertied class extracted the greater part of its surplus from unfree labour. In his own precise formulation:

I think it would not be technically correct to call the Greek (and Roman) world ‘a slave economy’; but I should not raise any strong objection if anyone else wished to use that expression, because, as I shall argue, the propertied classes extorted the bulk of their surplus from the working population by means of unfree labour, in which slavery, in the strict technical sense, played at some periods a dominant role and was always a highly significant factor.[2]

Agricultural slavery formed the economic basis of the Greek ruling class, allowing the nobility to congregate in the sophisticated towns. No wonder they saw slave ownership as one of the essentials of a civilised life! The surplus produced by slave labour allowed privileged Greeks the leisure to contemplate existence or to compose verse. Although slavery is a repugnant idea today, it was one of the foundations of Greek art. It was an unpleasant fact of life that slavery and democracy formed a dialectic; slavery helped to define liberty. And both helped to define culture.

The Athenian empire

The richest city state in the Greek world was Athens, whose wealth was built upon sea trade and the silver discovered at around 483 BCE at Laureion, which it mined using thousands of slaves.

From 499 BCE, the Greek city states were confronted by a military threat from Persia, and formed, with an uncharacteristic unity of purpose, an alliance that won a series of victories at land and sea. In 478 BCE they launched the Delian League – taking its name from its treasury on the ‘neutral’ island of Delos – to organise the collective defence of the Greek cities. The allies paid money into this fund every year, and collective security helped expand trade and prosperity. However, as the Persian threat receded, Athens’ leadership role became increasingly oppressive. When Naxos and Thasos attempted to withdraw from the alliance, the Athenian navy was sent to punish them. The pretence was dropped in 454 BCE when the treasury was moved to the Parthenon, which became more of a bank than a temple as tribute poured into the city. The member cities of the league had to pay Athens every year in her own currency, the silver owl, forcing them to buy Athenian produce to get the required coinage. Athens had created an empire.

This development had its own logic. Perry Anderson points out that slavery militated against any dramatic improvement of technique: slaves have no incentive to be more productive and slave labour degraded the status of labour in general. The main means of expansion in the ancient world therefore was a sideways, geographic one.

Classical civilisation was in consequence inherently colonial in character: the cellular city-state invariably reproduced itself, in phases of ascent, by settlement and war.

It is one of the contradictions of Greek democracy that Athens practiced democracy and sponsored it in other cities, yet became an overbearing imperial power in the Aegean.

Part of what made an Athenian empire possible was the trade goods flowing in from around the Mediterranean, making the Athenian port, Piraeus, a huge commercial centre. Athens now ruled a population of two million, receiving tribute from more than 170 states, and was the biggest importer of grain in the ancient world.

The Athenian imperial system would not survive the plunder, plague and massacres of the Peloponnesian War. But at its exuberant height in the 5th century BCE, Athens was not only rich in money but in ideas. Its cash paid for more triremes, but it also subsidised culture and public buildings. The city became the centre for the tragedy of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes; the comedy of Aristophanes; the history of Herodotus; and the philosophy of Anaxagoras and Socrates. Its most powerful symbol was the temple complex on the Acropolis hilltop that included the Parthenon.

The historian Bettany Hughes described the effect of such wealth:

Athens was able to beautiful itself. Walls, monuments and life-sculptures were erected. Aphrodite’s hoary, soot-blacked husband, Hephaestus, was given a new temple overlooking the Agora. In the city’s spanking-new Odeion, citizens enjoyed public cultural performances and contests, male-voice choirs fifty to 1000-strong competed here; new clothes were bought for performers and for the gods that their music honoured, and Athens’ snaking walls crept four miles further south to Piraeus. Pericles’ building programme was silhouetted on the Athenian skyline: the Propylaia, and perhaps too in his mind the glimmer of a plan for the Erechtheion – a kind of holy-hotel for many gods – famously buttressed by staunch caryatids. And, above all, Athena’s Parthenon: decorated green, blue, gold – dazzling like a peacock. Athena Parthenos, gilded and glowing with crystals and hippopotamus ivory, towered 39 feet high within the temple. Her gold clothes and accessories weighed 120lb, her skin gleamed, and on her outstretched palm perched a 6.5-foot high statue of Nike, the goddess of victory.[3]

Hughes’ description demonstrates vividly why a booming economy was another of the pre-requisites for ancient Greek art.

[1] Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974).
[2] G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981).

[3] Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup (2010).

Friday, 1 March 2013

Ancient Greece: Democracy and individualism

The first foundation of Greek culture that we will look at is its politics.

In the sixth century BCE, Greece launched an unprecedented political experiment in direct democracy, with its epicentre in the city-state of Athens. This revolution had huge consequences for Greek art.



The origin of the small-scale, isolated Greek polis or city state lay in the fragmentation of Mycenaean culture following the Bronze Age collapse. Typically, the polis was a fortified town surrounded by land and villages. Even before the expansionism of Alexander the Great, there were about 1500 city-states scattered across the coast from Spain and France to the Black Sea and Asia Minor. Few of them had a population of more than about 20,000, and the average was nearer 1000. Each was jealous of its independence and had its own constitution, leading to a great diversity of religious practice, culture and customs.

The small size of these Greek cities made their aristocracies more vulnerable, bringing the gulf between the rich and poor into a more intimate light. The privileges of the kings and their families were resented by those whose wealth was based upon the revival of trade. The new rich, or oligarchs, in many cities overthrew the monarchy to establish republics which themselves became subject to coups by popular ruling class leaders known as ‘tyrants’. The tyrants drew political power from mobilising the masses by making concessions on land and building public works, and in Athens and elsewhere this created the political opportunity for the first breakthrough for the masses in the class struggle of antiquity.

The first steps towards democracy were taken in 594 BCE by Solon, an oligarch who introduced reforms designed to steer a course between debt-ridden peasants and disenfranchised traders on one hand, and the aristocracy on the other. But the decisive change came nearly a century later when the pro-aristocratic Isagoras invited the Spartan army into Athens to help push out his reform-minded rival Kleisthenes. In response, Kleisthenes mobilised the masses, who laid siege to the Spartans and forced them out. The oppressed classes had acted, for the first time in recorded history, as a political agent.

Solon’s constitution was reformed. To break down traditional clan affiliations, citizens would now register by their place of residence and were thus placed on a more equal footing. The officials of legislative bodies were now chosen by lottery instead of being appointed by class or clan.

Democracy, which survived for about 200 years, was an astonishing development. An estimated 40,000 citizens of the city of Athens (out of a population of perhaps 250,000) now had a social power unprecedented in the ancient world. This was a limited suffrage compared to today, but it was a revolution compared to the despotisms of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Nor was it the shallow democracy of modern bourgeois states, whose electorate gets to vote once every five years or so for ‘representatives’ from a selection of ruling class factions. When the Assembly (ekklesia), the main legislative body, met on a hillside near the Acropolis, 6,000 citizens were needed for the meeting to be quorate. These citizens had a direct say in the city’s affairs, not just voting on issues put to them but deciding what the issues were. Greek democracy therefore was participatory, not representative. Freedom of expression (parrhesia or ‘to speak frankly’) meant that any citizen could speak in the assembly regardless of social class. Checks and punishments for elected officials included, in the worst cases, exile for ten years (known as ostracism).

Democracy encouraged a plurality of views, a dialectic that encouraged public debate and transformed intellectual life. Schools of philosophy arose from the desire to learn the nature of truth, the best ways to organise society, and the nature of the gods – if gods even existed at all. This process was assisted by the geography of the region. Unlike the civilisations in China and India, built in great river valleys and immense plains, land was scarce in mountainous Greece. As a sea-trading people based in a series of mostly coastal towns and colonies, the Greeks would have encountered a great variety of religions, philosophies, languages, and arts. An exposure to different worldviews can encourage, in the right conditions, an inquisitive mind: which, if any, of these discourses is actually correct? Unlike more centralised seafaring cultures such as the Carthaginians and Phoenicians, the Greeks could debate these things with a rare freedom. Some of these views were startling: including atheism (e.g. Diagoras) and materialism (e.g. Epicurus and Democritus).

Democracy caused consternation among privileged Athenians. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and playwrights such as Aeschylus and Aristophanes, are celebrated today as amongst the greatest products of Greek culture. But the ruling class, the leaders of Greece’s philosophical and literary life included, resented the constraints placed upon it by democracy, and, when they could, attempted to overthrow it. Socrates for example was associated with a group of conservative intellectuals who attempted to overthrow democracy in the late 5th century BCE. Yet it was only because intellectual life in Athens was so open and critical that a figure like Socrates could exist at all. Athens’ most brilliant cultural figures represented both a reaction against democracy and its highest product.

After Greece was conquered by the Romans, Athenian democracy died out. Democracy was not seen again in Europe until the advent of the bourgeoisie, who revived it 2000 years later, in their own forms, for their own reasons.


Unlike a great empire like Egypt, these relatively small, self-contained and democratic communities had no monarchy, bureaucracy and priest caste to insist upon a unity of cultural conventions. Artistic production was still dominated by the ruling class, but the ruling classes were more localised, less monolithic and, in democratic cities like Athens, constrained by the genuine political power of the masses.

This conjunction of elements brought something new to culture, in fact one of the most powerful ideas in history: a thoroughgoing sense of individualism. Each citizen of the polis (provided they were neither female nor slaves) could make an individual contribution to society, and assert their own particular views in competition with those of others. An individual, heroic human being could take control of their own destiny – human beings were the measure of all things. The potent inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, ‘know yourself’ (gnōthi seauton), was the slogan of a society that recognised the inner life of the individual like never before.

It is revealing that in the ancient world, it was highly unusual for artists to put their names to their work or become celebrated. In Greece, however, even the creators of that mass-produced art form, pottery, are recognisable by their individual style and sometimes sign their work. The Greeks consistently proclaim their identity as individual artists, lending history an unprecedented mass of named writers, architects, dramatists, poets and painters.

A statue comes to life: head of a kouros, 6th century BCE. Photo: Tetraktys

Let us briefly take the example of sculpture, for which Greece is particularly famed. (We will post on this topic in more detail later.) Influenced by individualism, the Greeks began to break down the rigid conventions they initially imitated from Egyptian art. Greek sculptors gradually became interested in representing particular, lifelike human beings, and to this end sought to depict what they saw, rather than what they had been told or thought they knew. Statues became enlivened by the so-called ‘archaic smile’, anatomy became more realistic, and poses more subtle and elastic.

The dialectic of individualism and scientific inquiry encouraged artists to look again at nature to question tradition and find new ways of seeing. Of course, despite their modern reputation for rationalism the Greeks worshipped an extended family of gods and goddesses and their lives were dominated by festivals, sacrifices and religious rites. This cannot be divorced from their art – almost all of which is inspired by mythology – any more than Greek democracy can be fully understood without its constraints of sexism and slavery. But there was now more space within culture for artists to align with radical political and scientific ideas. Born out of this contradiction, classical Greek art was both ideal and real, typical and individual: it sought a balance between a delight in nature and a very traditional desire for order and proportion.

Even after her independence and democracy were long lost, Athens continued for several more centuries as a centre of education for philosophy, rhetoric and logic. But classical Greek art grew from a combination of elements, some stronger than others. Democracy, and the individualism with which it is entwined, was one of the strongest. It is unlikely to be an accident that the crushing of democracy, under the Macedonians and then the Romans, was followed by the fading of Greek art’s revolutionary flair.

The origins of ancient Greek art

In ancient Greece, an art developed that was later to be seen as a seminal cultural achievement, above all by Western civilisation. When Marx wrote that the ancient Greek arts “are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal” [1], he was endorsing a consensus that has only recently begun to be reassessed. It was summed up by Percy Shelley when he wrote:

We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece. But for Greece... we might still have been savages and idolaters. [2]

The Apollo Belvedere. For hundreds of years this statue was regarded by European culture as one of the greatest achievements of ancient Greek art. Today it is believed to be a Roman copy of a lost bronze original. Photo: Wknight94.

It is unhelpful to repeat art history clichés about ‘the genius of the Greeks’. Is the Greeks’ reputation justified? Are they really the founders of Western culture? Does their art have something that the art of their contemporaries doesn’t? To find answers we have to look for the concrete historical developments that can explain why particular peoples, at a particular time, achieve particular things.

The next few posts will attempt answers to those questions. I will tend to concentrate upon Athens, not because other Greek cities made no contribution, but because we have far more data for Athens, and because it was the epicentre of the ancient Greek world.

Readers may want to begin by revisiting my previous posts around the topic of ancient Greece:
The rise of ancient Greece
Marx and the Greek classics
The Iliad
Is this Sparta?

[2] Percy Shelley, Preface to ‘Hellas’ (1822).