Classical Greece: The Golden Era (ca. 480–323 B.C.)

Classical Greece left a permanent imprint on the history of humankind. Take a look at the era that laid the foundations of Western philosophy, politics, sciences and arts.

Jun 27, 2020By Maria Dragatakis, BA Classics, Classical Languages and Literature
the parthenon frieze acropolis museum
The Parthenon frieze by Pheidias, 5th century BC, The Acropolis Museum, Athens


The Classical Period in ancient Greece produced outstanding cultural and scientific achievements. The city of Athens introduced to the world a direct Democracy political system later adopted and adjusted by western governments like Great Britain, France, and the USA a thousand years later. The logical approach centered on the concept of logos which initiated a continuous process of exploring and explaining the world. Democracy and Reason of classical Greece became the catalysts of western culture, the foundations of its advancement as demonstrated early in the subsequent Hellenistic Age, and its successor the Roman Empire that based its values on the same principles. 


An Overview Of Classical Greece


The philosophers of Classical Greece have dominated thought for thousands of years, and have remained relevant to our day. The teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle among others are reference points of countless western thinkers in the last two thousand years. Hippocrates became the “Father of modern medicine,” and the Hippocratic Oath is still used by physicians today. The literary masterpieces of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes set the basis for European theater and until today, they appear in the repertoires of great theatre ensembles.

map classical greece aegean islands
Map of Classical Greece and the Aegean islands


The Wars That Shaped The World


The military, social and cultural powers in classical Greece between 480 and 323 BC were Athens and Sparta. They dominated the Hellenic world, including mainland Greece and their colonies in southern Italy and Minor Asia coastal area. These two city-states rose to power through alliances with other city-states, reforms, and a series of victories against the invading Persian armies. They eventually resolved their rivalry in a ten-year-long war, known as the Peloponnesian War, which left both cities weak and easy prey at the emergence of Macedonia as the dominant power of Greece. Other cities in ancient Greece that contributed to the cultural achievements are Miletus, Thebes, Corinth, and Syracuse among many others.


bronze culrass body armor
Classical Greek Bronze Cuirass Body Armour, 4th century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art  

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The victory of the Greek forces on the mighty Persian Empire’s invasion at the milestone battles at Marathon in 480 BC and Salamis in 490 BC are hailed as fundamental points in the development of western civilization. The Greeks stopped the Persians at the gates of Europe, changing thus the course of history. A Persian victory would result in bringing to a halt all the achievements of Greece, especially Athens that followed immediately after and what is widely considered as the foundation of western civilization would not have transpired. 


battle of salamis painting
Battle of Salamis by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868, Maximilianeum Munich


Following the successful defense of their homeland, the Greek states entered a state of high development. Athens emerged as a major superpower and forged a defensive alliance with other city-states, the Delian League, against the Persians and asserting the Athenian hegemony of Greece.


Athenian Dominance

agora ostraca voting ancient greece
Greek Ostraca Shards of pottery used as a voting ballot, found at the Acropolis of Athens, 482 BC, The Agora Museum at Athens


The Persian defeat in 479 BC allowed Athens to dominate ancient Greece politically, economically, and culturally. The Delos League maintained border safety in the Aegean islands and on the coast of Asia Minor. The treasury of the League was initially kept on the holy island of Delos, sacred to Apollo, but in 454/453 BC, it was moved to the Athenian Acropolis. This made Athens the ultimate wealthy imperial power that had developed into the first democracy. 


Pericles (461–429 BC), the most creative and adroit statesman of the third quarter of the fifth century B.C., transformed the Acropolis into a lasting monument to Athens’s newfound political and economic power. Dedicated to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, the Parthenon epitomizes the architectural and sculptural grandeur of Pericles’ building program. This magnificent temple, built in Doric style, constructed entirely of marble and richly adorned with some of the finest examples of high Classical style sculpture of the mid-fifth century BC.


marble bust pericles
Marble Bust of Pericles, 430 BC, Staatliche Museum Berlin


The Bust of Pericles wearing a Corinthian helmet is a Roman copy of a bronze statue created by the Greek sculptor Kresilas. It reaches a height of 54 cm and was found on the island of Lesbos. There are four marble copies from the Roman imperial period. The detail rendered to the hair under the helmet and the beard are of exquisite artistry.  His hair under his helmet and his beard are magnificently curly. One can even see his hair through the eye slit in the helmet. Kresilas’ original bronze statue was located in the entrance hall of the Acropolis in Athens.


Masters Of Painted Pottery

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Greek Terracotta Amphora-Jar, attributed to the Berlin Painter, 490 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Pottery was a craft essential for producing all the everyday objects required for storage, transportation of goods, household use, and ceremonial objects. In the wealthy societies of the period, the objects lost their utilitarian value and acquired a unique artistic value with elaborate decorations and painting.  Particularly in Athens, there were significant achievements in the art commonly referred to as Attic vase painting.  The painters of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. attained a refined manner of illustration that conveys the vivacity of life as well as a sense of permanence, clarity, and harmony.


Explore what life was like in Athens in the 5th century through pottery, sculpture and more. Take a Virtual Tour of Room 19 in the British Museum.


The red-figure technique replaced the archaic black-figure technique, and introduced new finer techniques of portraying the human body, clothed or naked, at rest or in motion. The work of pottery painters, such as the Penthesilea painter, Douris, Makron, Kleophrades, and the Berlin Painter exhibit exquisite skills and details.


attic panathenaic amphora
Attic Panathenaic Amphora, attributed to Kleophrades, 500-480 BC, J. Paul Getty Museum


During the middle of the fifth century B.C. in classical Greece, further improvisations took effect; the white-ground technique was used for lekythoi, oil flasks placed on graves, and for fine vases of other shapes. The new white background allowed classical painters to achieve effects that are even more complex, gave new prominence to the glaze lines, and allowed for multi-colour syntheses.  

The decoration of the pyxis in the picture below reflects the delight with which an accomplished artist like the Penthesilea Painter depicted a traditional subject.


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The Judgement of Paris, Terracotta Pyxis, attributed to the Penthesilea Painter,  465–60 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Classical Sculptural Beauty 

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Greek Marble head of a woman wearing diadem and veil, 425–00 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Sculptors of Classical Greece achieved freedom from the restrictions imposed by the material.  Their intricate virtuosity rendered their sculptures into life-like figures instilled with vigor and verve. They created life-size and life-like masterpieces that glorified the human and especially nude male form. Their achievements were even greater. Marble became the perfect medium for rendering what all sculptors strive for, to have their work appear as carved from the inside rather than chiseled from the outside. Figures become alive, sensuous, and appear frozen in action. Faces are expressive and moods portrayed skilfully in face and body language. Clothes acquire a subtle texture and cling to the contours of the body; they depict a ‘wet’ or a ‘wind-blown’ look that captures delicate movements. 


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Greek Attic Marble grave stele of a young woman and servant, 400–390 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


There was a conscious effort to depict human and animal forms realistically. This was the result of careful observation of the model and a solid understanding of the mechanics of anatomy. Motion, weight, balance, proportions were carefully analyzed. The statues, mainly of gods, heroes, and athlete figures, are ‘at ease’,  with a slight swing at the shoulders, one leg relaxed and a posture accentuated by contrasts of rigid and relaxed in muscles and limbs. The sculptors ceased to be anonymous artisans and became renowned artists, with a name, artistic characteristics, and techniques, well recognized and commissioned by States and wealthy individuals.


The most prominent are listed below in chronological order.


athena parthenon reconstruction
Digital Reconstruction of the Lost Statue of Athena Parthenos by Pheidias, 447-38 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens


Pheidias the most famous of all, he sculpted the Parthenon frieze, 160 meters in length and 1 meter in height, of white Pentelic marble,  depicting 378 human and 245 animal figures. Parts of the frieze are on display at the Acropolis Museum in Athens and parts in the British Museum in London. 


He is also accredited for two major masterpieces that have not survived to this date, the gigantic gold and ivory statues of Athena (438 BC) and of Zeus (456 BC) which adorned, respectively, the Parthenon of Athens and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The Olympian Zeus was listed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 


statue of jupiter
Statue of Jupiter, 1st century AD, Roman copy of Pheidias’ original statue of Zeus, Hermitage Museum


Polykleitos of Argos worked in bronze and became famous for introducing the Canon, a recorded system of proportions and techniques that produced an artistic effect and allowed others to reproduce it. Though his treatise, the Canon, is lost, it is referenced in the literature of ancient Greece.


One of his most important statues, the Diadoumenos, survives in ancient Roman marble copies of the bronze original (see photo below). The statue of Doryphoros (Spear bearer), was also copied by the Romans in marble and copies have survived to date.


marble statue athlete
Marble statue of an Athlete binding his hair, 100 BC, Roman copy of a Greek bronze original by Polycleitus from 5th century BC, National Archaeological Museum of Athens


Kresilas, who was famous for the bronze bust for Pericles (425 BC), made several copies that have circulated through the centuries.


Last but certainly not least, Praxiteles the avant-gardist of his time. His Aphrodite of Knidos (340 BC) was the first full female nude statue, lost to us except in poor copies. Female statues were always draped and Praxiteles’ innovative art became an inspiration for many sculptors from the Roman to the Renaissance sculpture. The lean proportions and characteristic contrapposto posture became symbols of fourth-century B.C. Greek sculpture.


marble statue aphrodite of knidos
Marble Statue Aphrodite of Knidos, 1st century BC, Roman copy of a Greek original by Praxiteles from 4th century BC, Munich Glyptothek


Ancient Greece had established colonies in southern Italy mainly for trading and commerce. The city of Tarentum (modern Taranto) was an affluent colony on the southeast coast of Italy, a crucial port along the trade routes between Greece and Italy. 


The city’s cemetery features magnificent grave monuments, built as small temples and decorated with painted sculpture.  The relief in the photo above is from such a miniature temple and it represents a young warrior and a woman standing by an altar.


funerary relief italian limestone
Greek-South Italian Limestone Funerary Relief, 325–300 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art


The golden reign of Athens was short lived. It began to decline during the fourth century BC, but its influence on Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily was long lasting as they adopted Greek styles and employed Greek artists. Later during the Hellenistic and Roman times the original works, style and techniques of the artists in classical Greece were extensively copied, many of those copies were found across all the corners of the large empires.

Ancient Greek Theater: Tragedy Or Comedy? 

theater masks ancient greece
Mosaic depicting two Greek theater masks, 2nd century AD, Capitolini Museum, Rome 


Athenian drama, which flourished in the fifth century with the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, was an especially popular entertainment for the people with deep-rooted religious connotations. There were two types of plays: tragedies and comedies. Grand theatres adorned all major cities in classical Greece and later continued to spread in Hellenistic and Roman times.  Citizens were regular spectators and the habit was for all the family to attend staged performances, as they offered amusement accompanied by religious, educational, and political overtones. 


The amphitheater’s design was based on acoustic engineering principles, so even people in the top rows can comfortably hear the performance. Actors used masks to demonstrate emotions. Their capacity varied from 15,000 to 21,000 spectators and the cast was only male, and women could attend as spectators.


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Theater of Dionysus Eleutherios in the Athenian Acropolis


The Decline And Legacy Of Classical Greece 

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Alexander’s encounter with Diogenes the Cynic by Pierre Puget, 1680, The Louvre


Macedonia, situated in northern Greece, during the mid-fourth century BC., became a challenging and intimidating power under Philip II (r. 360/359–336 BC.). Philip’s military and political achievements paved the way for the conquests of his son, Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 BC.).


The rise of the Macedonian Empire resulted in the occupation of all Greek city-states by either Philip II or Alexander the Great. The Macedonian rulers did not invade Athens; they had great respect for the city and its culture. They were made honorary citizens of Athens and perpetuated the legacy of classical Greece throughout their vast empire.  The ensuing Hellenistic era is the glorification of classical art, culture, sciences, and philology and its dissemination across the known world.


Upon the rise of the Roman Empire, the Greek legacy found new passionate admirers and supporters. The Roman Classical era is indeed an enlargement of the Greek ideals in Art both in size (roman artifacts were enlarged copies of originals from classical Greece) but also in latitude as it traveled through the European and North African borders of the realm.


It survived in ruins of the ancient world, in treasures unearthed centuries later, in myths carried through the human consciousness, its literature, science, and philosophy meticulously studied and copied by Arab scholars and would be revived during the European Renaissance and become what we today study, research and admire in Classical Studies.

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By Maria DragatakisBA Classics, Classical Languages and LiteratureMaria Dragatakis lives and works in Athens, Greece as an International Productions Coordinator for a local theater company. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and Classical Languages and Literatures from Ohio University. Art is her passion which she is been blessed to relish in her daily tasks, in the world of the theater, and the city she lives in with its rich cultural heritage. Her work has taken her around the world in a never-ending journey, always seeking the finer sentiment of euphoria that only art can produce.