Ancient Greek Sculpture in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods

Ancient Greek sculpture was immensely influential in the development of Western art, in many ways shaping the understanding of beauty and aesthetics even in the modern world.

Mar 21, 2024By Anna Gustafsson, M.Sc. Communication & Arts, MA Archaeology
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During the Hellenistic and Classical periods, ancient Greek sculpture aimed to depict the human form realistically but in an idealized and harmonious state. Greek Sculptors carefully studied human anatomy and sought to capture the essence of physical perfection and inner vitality. They believed the human body reflected divine beauty, and their sculptures became a medium to express this belief. Let’s discover how the ancient Greeks used sculpture, and some notable “masterpieces”.


Notable Uses of Sculpture in the Classical & Hellenistic Eras


Attic Grave Monuments

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Grave monument for a young athlete, circa 550 BCE, Kerameikos cemetery in Athens. Source: the Archaeological Museum of Athens


Attica, the region surrounding Athens, was known for its distinctive burial rites and intricate grave markers. The Attic grave monuments of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE marked graves, commemorated the deceased, and conveyed their social status. In the 5th century BCE, the stele was the most prominent type of grave monument. A stele is a tall, rectangular, and upright piece of stone or marble. The Attic grave stelae displayed high artistic skill and attention to detail. They featured a variety of motifs, such as family members bidding farewell to their loved ones, children with pets and other animals, and war scenes. These sculptures emphasized the achievements and virtues of the deceased and their family.


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Grave stele of a little girl from 450-440 BCE. Source: MET


In the 4th century BCE, there was a shift in the design of Attic grave monuments. The stelae began incorporating architectural elements such as triangular pediments, columns, and small temples. This architectural approach created an even more elaborate and exquisite appearance for the grave monuments. The sculptural decoration became more complex as well. Artists began to depict scenes from everyday life, such as banquets, hunting scenes, or the deceased engaging in athletic activities. These scenes aimed to reflect the interests and accomplishments of the dead and provide a glimpse into their idealized lives.


Architectural Sculpture

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Battle between centaur and Lapith from a metope of the Parthenon Frieze. Source: British Museum

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Architectural sculpture played a significant role in ancient Greek art and architecture. It was a prominent element in temples, public buildings, and even private houses. The sculptural decoration in ancient Greek architecture served multiple purposes. It added an aesthetic appeal to buildings, conveyed narratives from mythology and history, and reflected the religious beliefs and cultural values of the time. Here are some key architectural elements that could feature sculptured decoration:


  1. Metopes are rectangular spaces between the triglyphs on the Doric frieze of a temple. They were often decorated with relief sculptures depicting various mythological or historical scenes. Metopes were typically carved in high relief, creating a sense of depth, narrativity, and three-dimensionality.


  1. Pediments are the triangular spaces at the ends of a temple. Pediments were excellent locations for sculptural compositions. The pediments featured complex relief sculptures portraying mythological narratives or significant events related to the temple. The sculptures in pediments often pictured gods, goddesses, heroes, and mythological figures.


  1. Friezes are decorative bands located above the architrave of a temple. There were two main types: the Doric frieze and the Ionic frieze. The Doric frieze was characterized by alternating triglyphs and metopes. The metopes could contain relief sculptures, as mentioned earlier. The Ionic frieze, found in Ionic order temples, was a continuous band of relief sculptures depicting various subjects, including processions, rituals, and scenes from daily life. The Parthenon of the Acropolis had a frieze depicting a Panathenaic procession, which circled the temple.


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Caryatid from the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis, 420-415 BCE. Source: the Acropolis Museum


  1. Caryatids are sculpted female figures used as architectural supports, often as columns. They were typically depicted wearing draped clothing and standing in a contrapposto stance, which created a sense of movement and grace. Caryatids were commonly found in the Ionic order and were named after the city of Caryae.


  1. Acroteria are decorative elements placed on the corners of pediments, as well as on the corners of roofs. They were later copied in Gothic architecture, so they can be spotted on buildings from different eras.


Honorific Statues

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Bronze honorific statue of a man, mid-2nd century to 1st century BCE. Source: MET


Honorific statues and their bases are an important aspect of ancient Greek art and culture. They were commissioned to honor, commemorate, and pay tribute to individuals and their achievements. The honored persons could be particularly prominent citizens, military leaders, great athletes, or persons who had made other contributions to society.


The statues were typically placed in public spaces such as in the courtyards of sanctuaries or city squares. They served as a visual representation of honor, prestige, and power. This idealism aligned with the ancient Greek belief in pursuing excellence, beauty, virtue, and celebrating extraordinary athletic skill.


Honorific statues were typically made of marble or bronze. Marble statues were sculpted, and bronze statues were cast using the lost wax technique. Honorific statues were usually larger than life, and the aim was not to portray the exact likeness of the person honored but an idealized version of themselves.


Honorific Statue Bases — Important Clues

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Base of an honorific statue commemorating the victory of three athletes in a torch relay, possibly during a Panathenaic festival, after 350 BCE. Source: Acropolis Museum


Honorific statues stood on bases, which survived in larger numbers than the statues. The pedestals were square or rectangular platforms. The purpose was to stabilize the statues and lift them higher so people could see them better. Occasionally, there were multiple statues placed as a visual ensemble on one platform.


The bases of honorific statues frequently contained inscriptions providing information about the honored person. These included the name of the individual, their achievements, and sometimes the names of the sculptor or the patron who commissioned the statue. Inscriptions could also include dedicatory statements or dedications to gods. The inscriptions offer valuable insights into the personal history of the persons to whom the statues were dedicated and insights into the social dynamics of ancient Greece.


Honorific statue bases can also feature decorative elements such as relief sculptures or architectural embellishments. These decorative elements could include scenes related to the honored person, symbols of their achievements, or mythological motifs. These embellishments enhanced the beauty and significance of these monuments, which are easily overlooked during a museum visit.


Roman Copies — Not Always Replicas

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Roman copy of a 2nd century BCE Greek sculpture depicting the three graces. Source: MET


The vast majority of original ancient Greek statues have been lost throughout history. However, the Romans created multiple copies of famous Greek sculptures. The Roman copies covered various subjects and themes, including mythological figures, gods and goddesses, athletes, historical figures, and ordinary individuals. These Roman copies played a crucial role in preserving Greek artistic traditions. Sculpted in marble, they were less likely to be destroyed than the multiple bronze Greek statues that were lost in fires or melted down and used for coin production or even ammunition.


Roman copies of Greek statues were not always exact replicas, but rather, adaptations that reflected the tastes, styles, and artistic conventions of the Roman period. Roman artists often modified the original Greek sculptures to suit contemporary preferences or specific patron demands. The statues were frequently commissioned by Roman emperors, aristocrats, and wealthy patrons who sought to emulate Greek culture and assert their status and power. The choice of specific Greek statues and their placement within public spaces or private collections can reveal the patron’s aspirations, interests, and self-presentation.


The Roman copies of Greek statues also demonstrate the evolution of artistic styles over time. As the Roman Empire progressed, there was a shift towards more naturalistic and realistic representations, departing from the idealized forms of ancient Greek art. The Roman copies often exhibit subtle changes in facial expressions, poses, and drapery that reflect the evolving artistic sensibilities of the Roman period.


Greek Sculpture of the Classical Era

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Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue from circa 450 BCE by Polykleitos, 41-54 CE. Source: MET


The Classical era of ancient Greek sculpture, which emerged in the 5th century BCE, is renowned for its emphasis on harmony, idealized beauty, and the pursuit of perfect proportions. It represents a pinnacle of artistic achievement and profoundly influenced Western art.


Classical Greek sculpture aimed to depict the human form in its most beautiful and balanced state. Sculptors meticulously studied human anatomy to achieve a sense of realism and proportion in their works. They sought to capture the idealized physical perfection and inner vitality of the human body.


One of the defining characteristics of Classical sculpture is its focus on the concept of contrapposto. This technique involved placing the body’s weight on one leg while the other leg relaxed, resulting in a naturalistic and dynamic pose. Using contrapposto added a sense of movement and liveliness to the sculptures, creating an aesthetically pleasing balance between tension and relaxation.


Classical sculptures also display a sense of calmness and serenity. The facial expressions are serene and composed, conveying a sense of grace and dignity. The attention to detail extended to the rendering of hairstyles, musculature, and drapery, showcasing the sculptors’ technical skill and precision.


The sculptures of the Classical era often depicted gods, goddesses, heroes, and revered individuals. They were primarily made of marble, although bronze was also used. These sculptures adorned temples, public spaces, and private collections, serving as a means of religious devotion, commemoration, and artistic expression.


Prominent sculptors of the Classical era include Phidias, Myron, and Polykleitos, whose works exemplify the ideals and aesthetics of the time. Their sculptures, such as the Parthenon sculptures and the Discus Thrower (Discobolus), are iconic representations of Classical Greek art.


Greek Sculpture of the Hellenistic Era

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Detail of a highly realistic, life-size statue of a boxer at rest. 330-50 BCE. Source: Palazzo Massimo alla Terme in Rome.


The Hellenistic era, which spanned from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the establishment of the Roman Empire in 31 BCE, witnessed a significant evolution in Greek sculpture. During this period, Greek art experienced a shift in style and subject matter, reflecting the cultural, political, and social changes of the time.


Hellenistic sculpture broke away from the idealized perfection of the Classical period and embraced a more emotional and dramatic approach. Sculptors sought to convey intense emotions, extreme narratives, and new levels of detail in their works. The statues often depicted dynamic poses, exaggerated gestures, and complex compositions that captured movement and energy.


One characteristic feature of Hellenistic sculpture is the exploration of diverse subjects and themes. Artists moved beyond the traditional focus on gods and heroes to depict ordinary people, children, elderly individuals, and animals. This expansion of subject matter allowed a greater range of expressions and emotions to be conveyed, making the sculptures more relatable and humanistic.


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The hall at the Royal Academy in London with a copy of Farnese Hercules in the back and Apollo Belvedere on the left, unknown artist, 1810. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum


The Hellenistic period also saw advancements in sculptural techniques and materials. Sculptors experimented with new materials and explored their potential for realism and expressiveness. They mastered bringing out details, such as skin, hair, and clothing textures, and the rendering of emotions through facial expressions and body language.


Notable sculptors of the Hellenistic era include Lysippus, Praxiteles, and Scopas, whose works demonstrated the innovative and expressive spirit of the time. Their sculptures reflected a fascination with the individual, the human psyche, and the exploration of new aesthetic possibilities.


9 Key Ancient Greek Sculptures 


1. Nike of Samothrace

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Winged Nike (Nike of Samothrace), circa 200-175 BCE. Source: the Louvre


This stunning marble sculpture, dating from the 2nd century BCE, depicts Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The statue captures the dynamic movement of Nike with her billowing drapery, conveying a sense of triumph and grace. The sculpture is now displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.


2. Aphrodite of Knidos 

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Roman copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos, created by Praxiteles in the 4th century BCE. Source: Museo Nazionale Romano.


Created by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles in the 4th century BCE, this sculpture depicts the goddess Aphrodite, the embodiment of beauty and love. It is considered one of the first significant depictions of a fully nude female form in Western art. While the original is lost, several Roman copies and adaptations provide insight into its appearance and influence. There are several copies in museums, such as the Louvre, Uffizi Gallery, and the British Museum. Still, the one closest to the original is usually considered to be in the Vatican Museum.


3. Hermes of Praxiteles

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Undated photograph of Hermes of Praxiteles before restoration. Source: the Victoria & Albert Museum.


Another work attributed to Praxiteles, this sculpture captures the god Hermes holding the infant Dionysus. The delicate forms and the tender interaction between the two figures make this sculpture a masterpiece. The statue was found during the excavations of the temple of Hera in Olympia in 1877 and is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.


4. The Riace Bronzes

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Statue A of the Riace Bronzes. Source:


This pair of larger-than-life bronze sculptures, created around 460-450 BCE, depict two ancient Greek warriors. The sculptures are magnificent examples of the sculptor’s ability to display details of the warriors’ anatomical features and facial expressions. The statues were discovered in Riace, Italy, and are housed in the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia in Reggio Calabria.


5. Discobolus (Discus Thrower) 

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The dining room of an English collector and noble man, Charles Townley, who did several Grand Tours in Europe 1794. In the center is a copy of the Discobolus. Source: British Museum


The bronze sculpture by Myron was created in the 5th century BCE. The original is now lost, but the sculpture is well-known and studied from several Roman copies. The copies include the Lancellotti Discobolus and the Townley Discobolus (seen in the painting above). The sculptor has used the opportunity to showcase the dynamic pose and prowess of the athlete as he is preparing to throw a discus.


6. Laocoön and His Sons

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Laocoon group found in 1506 (left). Source: Vatican Museum; Early 16th-century drawing of Laocoon and his sons (center) shows the statue before restoration. Source: the Victoria & Albert Museum; with copy of the statue, from ca. 1500-1600, on display at the Musée National du Château de Fontainecleau. Source: Louvre


This Roman copy of a Greek Hellenistic sculpture from the 1st century BCE is an iconic representation of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons being attacked by sea serpents. Laocoon captures intense emotion, dramatic movement, and extreme details, highlighting the mastery of ancient Greek sculpture.


7. Venus de Milo

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Venus de Milo, from 150-125 BCE. Source: Louvref


Also known as the Aphrodite of Milos, this iconic marble sculpture represents the goddess of love and beauty. Despite its missing arms, the statue is renowned for its graceful form, flowing drapery, and idealized depiction of female beauty. Venus de Milo has influenced how artists depict the female body for centuries. On display in the Louvre.


8. Apollo Belvedere

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Photograph of Apollo Belvedere. Source: the Victoria & Albert Museum


This Roman marble copy is an interesting example of Romans copying the Greek Hellenistic style. The statue’s dynamic pose, idealized physique, and confident expression exemplify the harmonious balance between strength and grace. It was highly regarded during the Renaissance and influenced many subsequent artists.


9. Dying Gaul (or “The Dying Galatian”) 

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A marble Roman copy of the Greek sculpture known as Dying Gaul. Source: Wikimedia Commons


This is a Roman marble copy of an original Greek sculpture dating from circa 320 BCE. The work portrays a wounded Gallic warrior in his final moments with clear signs of injury and suffering. The sculpture is recognized for its poignant depiction of the warrior’s pain, vulnerability, and bravery. The Capitoline Museums in Rome house the marble statue.

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By Anna GustafssonM.Sc. Communication & Arts, MA ArchaeologyAnna is a writer and an archaeologist based in Athens, Greece. She graduated from the University of Athens (NKUA) with an MA in Greek and Eastern Mediterranean archaeology and has an M.Sc. degree in journalism, literature, and art studies. Anna loves to share her passion for history and arts through writing. Her special interests are the Bronze Era in the Eastern Mediterranean area, the visual arts of ancient Greece, and the archaeology of Cyprus. In her spare time, Anna enjoys studying languages, visiting archaeological museums and medieval churches, reading biographies of European royalty, and taking photographs.