The incalculably rich legacy left by the Greeks in literature w-as well matched by their achievements in the public arts. In architecture their characteristic public building was a rectangle, with a roof supported by fluted columns. Over the centuries, the Greeks developed three principal types or orders of columns, still used today in “classical” buildings: the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian. Fluting gave an impression of greater height than the simple cylindrical Egyptian columns.
No matter what the order of the columns, a Greek temple strikes the beholder as dignified and simple. On the Acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon, greatest of all Doric temples, rose between 447 and 432 B.C. as the crowning achievement of Pericles’ rebuilding program. By means of subtle devices-slightly inclining the columns inward so that they look more stable, giving each column a slight bulge in the center of the shaft so that it does not look concave-the building gives the illusion of perfection. In the triangular gable-ends that crowned its front and back colonnades (pediments) and on the marble slabs (metopes) between the beam ends above the columns, stood a splendid series of sculptured battle scenes, most of whose remains (the so-called Elgin Marbles) are now in the British Museum. Originally, the Parthenon and its statues were brightly painted.
The achievement of Phidias and the other sculptors of the Periclean Age had gradually developed from styles created a century or more earlier, usually of young men rather rigidly posed, with their arms hanging at their sides and a uniformly serene smile on their lips. Phidias’s great gold and ivory statues of Athena and the Olympian Zeus long ago fell to looters, though the Parthenon frieze survived. Most of the Greeks’ sculpture in bronze also was destroyed, but every so often a great bronze statue is fished out of the sea or is found beneath a modern street.
Though Greek painting as such has almost disappeared, we know from written texts that public buildings were adorned with paintings of Greek victories and portraits of political and military leaders. Moreover, the thousands of pottery vases, plates, cups, and bowls that have been discovered preserve on their surfaces-in black on red or in red on black-paintings of extraordinary beauty and of great variety. They show mythological scenes, illustrations of the Iliad and Odyssey, and the daily round of human activity-an athlete, a fisherman, a shoemaker, a miner, even a drunk vomiting while a sympathetic girl holds his head.
In the Hellenistic age sculpture became more emotional and theatrical. The Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace are two of the most her alded Hellenistic works of art, but there were a good many imitative and exaggerated efforts that today are
regarded as comparative failures. In literature, too, beginning with Menander, vigor and originality ebbed, while sophistication and self-consciousness took over.
Women continued to have significant, though clearly subordinate, roles in Greek and Hellenic society, as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata had clearly demonstrated. The Greek family remained monogamous and nuclear: that is, it consisted of husband, wife, and their children. The family was also an economic unit, and dependent relatives and slaves were often included within the Greek definition of family. Spouses were chosen from within a narrow circle of relatives, in good part in order to protect family property through a closed circle of inheritance. The family thus served to protect women.
Women were citizens, though they did not have independent status: They were required to have a guardian-their husband, if they were married, their father or another close male relative if they were unmarried. In Sparta women could inherit land, and by the third century two fifths of the land was held by women. In Athens, however, women remained without property (except for their own slaves, their clothing, and their jewelry).
Athenian philosophers and writers portrayed women as more prone to extreme emotions and violent acts than men. Women, Athenian leaders argued, needed to be protected both from the outside world and from themselves. Thus a stranger could not enter an Athenian house where there were women unless invited in by the master; quarters for women were segregated away from the street, so that they might not be seen by casual passersby; and women generally did not leave the house unless accompanied by a male.
Unless archaeology and history together produce new evidence, we are likely to see the Greeks as the ancient people to whom Western civilization feels closest. They worried about our worries: What does it mean to be civilized? To lead the good life? To serve the people? To retain one’s own identity? How best may we attain a sense of security in a world in which chance exists? By fatalistically accepting that which is? By attempting to change the future? The present? Our environment? Our past?They asked whether god or gods exist, and, for the most part, having decided that they did, they debated how best to worship, celebrate, or propitiate those gods, individually and in groups.
Much of what we know about the Greeks comes from research and discoveries in the nineteenth century. The Greeks seemed to provide answers to many questions with which nineteenth-century society was concerned, and there was a tendency, especially in western Europe, to idealize Greek civilization. Only recently have new techniques and concerns among historians-especially with quantitative methods and in comparative and social history-led us to realize that there was much in Greek society which today we find deplorable.
Slavery was essential to the leisure the philosophers enjoyed. Women were kept in subordinate positions. War was used to resolve problems of population and pride as well as for territorial gain. The toilers in the fields, vineyards, and in the expanding ancient city often had no voice. Though professing the rational life, the Greeks could be swept up into the irrational, allowing their rituals to bring on mass hysteria.
In sum, the Greeks were human beings subject to the ambiguities and contradictions shown by every human society. It is this very humanness which strengthens our perception that Greek origins are so relevant to our own.