How Did Near Eastern Cultures Influence Greek Art?

Ancient Greek art is uniquely prized today for its aesthetics and style but it was profoundly influenced by the styles and techniques of the Near East.

Mar 25, 2024By Jared Krebsbach, PhD History, MA Art History, BA History
near eastern influence greek art


Ancient Greek art occupies a central space in many museums around the world. Whether it is geometric vases, beautiful sculpture, or fine jewelry, Classical Greek art is distinctly beautiful and impressive. The Romans were so impressed with Greek art, especially sculpture, that they replicated the style and in some cases even made direct copies of Greek masterpieces. But long before Greek artists inspired Roman art, an examination of Greek art reveals that, although Hellenic art is truly unique, it was influenced by artistic traditions from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant.


Early Greek-Near Eastern Contacts

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Marble sphinx, Late Archaic Greek, 570-550 BCE. Source: National Archaeological Museum, Athens


Near Eastern artistic influences were not forced on the Greeks, nor did they happen suddenly, but they were the result of centuries of cultural exchange. The cultural ancestors of the Classical Greeks – the Minoans and Mycenaeans – developed extensive trade and diplomatic contacts with several Bronze Age Near Eastern cultures. When the Bronze Age system collapsed around the year 1200 BCE, the contacts between the Aegean and the Near East diminished but did not totally disappear.


When the Greek-speaking world emerged from its “dark age” and Classical Greek culture was born in the 8th century BCE, extensive contacts with the Near East were redeveloped. Eastern influence can be seen from this early time in rings and other small artifacts. The early Near Eastern influence on Greek art originated in three locations: Phoenicia, Syria, and Uratu. Uratu provided early metalworking influences while central Syrian artisans gave their ivory working expertise and sculpture from northern Syrian cities provided the Greeks with early templates. The Phoenician “composite style,” which incorporated elements from throughout the Near East, was another important influence on Archaic/early Classical Greek art. These styles and techniques would provide the foundation for those of Classical Greek art.


Near Eastern Motifs and Iconography in Greek Art

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Corinthian black-figure trefoil oinochoe with lid featuring Near Eastern creatures, Archaic Greek, 600-575 BCE. Source: National Archaeological Museum, Athens


Before proceeding, it is important to establish that the modern concept of art is quite different than it was in the ancient world. Today, art is produced for its own sake and although the most notable works have deep meaning, they usually serve no practical function. In the ancient Near East, almost all art was produced for specific purposes – funerary, ritual, and propaganda, for example. Although aesthetics played a role in what are today considered masterpieces of Near Eastern art, functionality was more important. For the Greeks, art occupied a place in their society that was somewhere between that of the ancient Near East and the modern world. The Greeks produced art for cultic functions, but they also created pieces, especially sculpture in the Hellenistic Period, purely for visual enjoyment. So with that in mind, an examination of some Near Eastern motifs in Greek art is a good starting point.

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archaic amphora animals
Orientalizing amphora featuring a lion, Archaic Greek, c. 700 BCE. Source: British Museum


Images of mythical creatures of Near Eastern origin started to become a popular motif in Greek art in the 7th century BCE. Tripods, amphorae, bowls, and other devices and utensils were commonly adorned with griffins, sirens, and sphinxes, among other creatures. Although many of these creatures later made their way into Classical Greek literature, they can also be seen in the much earlier art of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant.


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Orientalizing cauldron fitting, Archaic Greek, 700-600 BCE. Source: British Museum


Real animals that had spiritual significance in earlier Near Eastern societies also made their way into Greek art. The Greeks had a particular fondness for lions, although the ferocious feline was only native to the Macedonian region of the Greek speaking world. It is very likely that, in the absence of native lions in mainland Greece, Greek artists were influenced by the many images of lions in Near Eastern art. For example, lion hunts and lions in general were a popular motif in Assyrian art, which may have been borrowed by Greek artists.


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Relief of a lion and lioness from the Royal Assyrian Palace in Nineveh, Neo-Assyrian, 645-640 BCE. Source: British Museum


Early Greek artists also adopted artistic techniques from the Near East. In addition to the techniques mentioned earlier that the Greeks borrowed in the 8th century BCE, they also learned the “lost wax” method of bronze statue production from Egypt. This process involved making a sculpture in wax over a clay core that was then covered in bronze. This method was used for the first life-sized Greek statues in the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE. But this method was only introduced after ancient Egyptian sculpture methods had already made a profound impact on Greek sculpture.


Egyptian Sculpture and Classical Sculpture 

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Statue of a female figure from Delos, Archaic Greek, c. 650 BCE. Source: National Archaeological Museum, Athens


Greek sculpture emerged out of the dark age in the 8th century BCE with little precedent or influence from the earlier Aegean cultures. The pre-classical cultures of the Minoans and Mycenaeans focused their artistic energies on frescoes and architecture, so the Greeks had to look east. As the Greeks entered what modern scholars have termed the “Archaic Period” (c. 800-480 BCE), they began building temples. A primary feature of these early temples were cult statues, which were believed to be the earthly avatar of a particular deity. The Sanctuary of Hera (the Heraion) on the island of Samos is one of the most interesting archaeological sites of the Archaic period for art historical reasons.


A number of objects of Near Eastern origin were discovered at the Heraion, the most important of which was a bronze statue of the Egyptian goddess Mut. This object likely provided the template for Greek artists to create a wooden statuette of the goddess Hera that was also discovered in the temple. The Greek statue, though, has some noticeably different details. The fabric of Hera is much more detailed and is overall less “fleshy” than its Egyptian counterpart.


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The New York Kouros, Archaic Greek, 590-580 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Egyptian-influenced statuettes gave way to a distinct sculptural form known as the kouros in the 6th century. Kouros is the term for a male version of this type of statue, while kore is the term used for female figures. One of the earliest and best-known kouros statues is the “New York Kouros”, which is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The New York Kouros and later kouroi (plural of kouros) statues followed the Egyptian sculptural canon of proportions, but a closer examination reveals some notable differences.


Greek artists did not employ the supporting pillar that was nearly universal in Egyptian statuary and harder granite was usually the preferred medium. Greek kouroi are also notable for being nude, while Egyptian figures were always dressed in a kilt. It should be pointed out that Greek korai (female kore) were always clothed, usually with well-detailed dresses. Overall, Greek kouroi did not embody or symbolize power the way that Egyptian statues did. Perhaps this is because Greek kouroi were used in a variety of different settings that were not always sacred.


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Priest of Amun, Egyptian Late Period, 30th Dynasty (381-362 BCE). Source: Brooklyn Museum, New York


The Egyptians’ influence on Greek statuary can be traced back to the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE, particularly during the 25th and 26th dynasties. It was after the Nubians conquered Egypt and established the 25th dynasty that a form of “realism” that combined elements of “idealism” entered Egyptian art. Egyptian artists employed sculptural techniques of early periods and added new elements that gave each figure a degree of individuality. They also added a characteristic “smile” to their sculptures that, along with the canon of proportions, was adopted by Greek artists. This combination of idealism and individuality would be the first steps toward true portraiture that was later achieved by Greek artists. The “Boston Green Head” is a perfect example of how this process continued on Egyptian soil. But by that time the Greeks had entered the Classical period and were producing works of true portraiture.


Hellenism and Beyond

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Boston Green Head, Egyptian Late Period, 30th Dynasty (380-332 BCE). Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


By the late 4th century BCE, the Hellenic world and the Near East had become intertwined in many ways and artistic influences had come full circle. The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE) was eclectic in many ways, especially in terms of art and architecture. Achaemenid Persian sculpture in particular was influenced by Egypt and Mesopotamian precedents, but it also clearly borrowed from its Greek rivals to the west. The Achaemenid style did not last very long, though, as it was replaced by Hellenism.


When Alexander the Great (ruled 336-323 BCE) conquered the Achaemenid Empire he initiated the era of Hellenism, when Greek culture spread throughout the Near East. Greek artistic styles impressed themselves on the older cultures of the Near East, but another round of Near Eastern influences manifested in Hellenistic art. Near Eastern influences on Hellenistic art, though, were much more superficial, as Hellenistic art was grand, ostentatious, and some would say pretentious. Artists used Near Eastern techniques with Greek forms while Near Eastern subject matters and forms were often Hellenized. This blending of artistic styles was most apparent in Egypt, where the initial influence on Archaic Greek sculpture began.


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Head of a Ptolemaic King, Ptolemaic Period, Late 2nd Century BCE or Early 1st Century BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The blending of Egyptian and Greek styles became so ubiquitous in Egypt that today it is difficult to differentiate sculpture of the 30th dynasty from the Ptolemaic period. Eventually, Egyptian sculpture acquired a more Hellenistic style with only superficial Egyptian features. This superficial “Egyptianness” is exemplified by the stone head of a Ptolemaic king loaned from the Yale Peabody Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Smith noted that the “Egyptian headdress grafted on to the imperial portrait does not disguise the Greek curls escaping underneath.” It is believed to be either Ptolemy VIII (ruled 170-163 BCE and 145-116 BCE) or Ptolemy X (ruled 107-88 BCE). The superficial use of Egyptian accouterments on Hellenistic sculpture was adopted by the Romans, who then developed their own form of sculptural realism.


Egyptian Influences on Roman Verism 

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Copy of a marble head of an athlete, Imperial Roman, 138-192 CE. Original: Classical Greek, ~450-425 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Artists often employed the superficial use of Egyptian features and accouterments on statuary that was otherwise Hellenistic in style. Perhaps one of the best known examples of this is the statue of Osiris-Antinous now in the Vatican Museum. Antinous was a friend of the Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117-138 CE) who drowned in the Nile River. The emperor deified Antinous and syncretized him with Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. The statue of Antinous-Osiris is clearly Hellenistic in style, with the Egyptian nemes headdress almost being an afterthought.


antinous osiris statue
Marble statue of Antinous as Osiris, Imperial Roman, c. 117-138 CE. Source: Vatican Museum


Art historians often point to Roman Republican sculpture portraiture as the natural extension of Classical Greek and Hellenistic portraiture. Although this is certainly true to a great extent, it mitigates the innovation of Roman sculpture as well as the influence of Egyptian style. The sculptural realism that Egyptian artists began employing in the late 8th century BCE found a home in the realism of late Republican sculpture, often termed “verism,” Notable art historians, such as Bernard Bothmer, argued that the verism seen in sagacious middle-aged Roman senators can be traced directly back to the sculptures of the Nubian and Saite kings of Egypt’s 25th and 26th dynasties.

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By Jared KrebsbachPhD History, MA Art History, BA HistoryJared is a fulltime freelancer with a background in history. His work has been published in academic journals as well as popular magazines, blogs, and websites. Historical interests include cyclical history, religious history, and economics.