Greek world

The Greek world comprises more than modern Greece. Colonies were founded in Sicily, southern Italy and the west coast of modern Turkey. After the defeat of Persia Greece flourished.

Geometric period: ca. 900-700 B.C.

After the collapse of Mycenaean authority, small settlements sprang up which were largely geared to basic survival and had few ties with the outside world. In the eighth century B.C. the so-called city-state (polis) appeared, that is, a town whose surrounding area was economically and culturally dependent on it. The Geometric period is named after the geometric motifs of its pottery, like meander (right-angle lines) and triangle. Animal motifs regularly decorate the pottery of the period and, in the course of the eighth century, human figures gradually gained importance. Funerary gifts were commonly given to the dead, particularly pottery vessels belonging to drinking services used in the funerary ceremony. Steadily more trade took place and the Greeks came into contact with other peoples. Moreover, the alphabet was introduced, which the Greeks borrowed from the Phoenicians. At the same time (APM16091) Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are written down.

Orientalizing period: ca. 700-600 B.C.

The Greeks adapted for their own purposes many ideas, techniques and pictorial representations which were common in the Near East. The process resulted in the so-called orientalizing period.
The city-states founded in the eighth century continued to grow. Corinth became a major centre of trade and manufacturing, partly because of its favourable location on the isthmus between the Peloponnesus and central mainland Greece. As a result, the production of pottery and its export thrived tremendously. Large amounts of Corinthian pottery have been discovered all over the Mediterranean basin. The painted decoration of Corinthian vases is executed in the so-called black-figure technique, are a prominent thematic trait.    


In the seventh century B.C. eastern artists and craftsmen settled in Crete and a new, orientalizing style was established which is today named Daedalic after the legendary Daedalus who supposedly worked on the island. It was said that his statues could see, walk and even talk, and that they bore a close resemblance to Egyptian work. Presumably, the description refers to the earliest Greek kouros statues. It is generally accepted that the Greek technique of carving hard stone was derived from the Egyptians. But however numerous the correspondences, the differences are more striking. Egyptian statues are supported in the back by a vertical post and the stone between the legs has not been removed. The Greeks removed the post and opened the space between the legs, so the figure stands freely. As a result, Greek kouroi look more life-like than Egyptian figures, nearly as if they are moving. 

Archaic period: ca. 600-480 B.C.

In Athens Solon laid down his reforms as law at the beginning of the sixth century. He introduced an elected council, and gave the people's representatives more power. All his reforms laid the basis for the later Athenian democracy. In 561/560 B.C. the tyrant Peisistratus seized power. In 510 B.C. Cleisthenes became the new leader of Athens. He carried out reforms at the expense of the large landowners and democratized the assembly of representatives.

Athenian pottery

The Corinthian black-figure technique was adopted by the Athenian workshops in approximately 630 B.C. In Athens it continued in use until about 470 B.C. The red-figure technique, on the other hand, is an Athenian innovation dating from around 530 B.C. Many vessels were made for use at a symposion, the drinking party that took place after a meal which a host offered to his friends. I was an exclusively male event, apart from the female servants, dancers, musicians and courtesans (hetairai) who were hired for the occasion.


Olympia hosted the first Olympic Games in honour of Zeus in 776 B.C. In Athens the Panathenaic Games were held every four years in honour of Athena. The contests included footraces, the penthathlon, boxing, wrestling and horse and chariot races.

Classical period: ca. 480-323 B.C.

A crucial point in western history is Athens' defeat of Persia in the battles of Marathon (490 B.C.) and Salamis (480 B.C.). From 454 B.C. on, Athens controlled a very wide region and maintained a big fleet. Its most important statesman was Pericles (APM06036), who from 460 until his death in 429 B.C. presided over the further development of Athenian democracy. The fifth century saw an extraordinary cultural bloom in Athens. The last three decades of the fifth century B.C. were dominated by the war between Athens and Sparta, known as the Peloponnesian War, which was ultimately won by the Spartans (431-404 B.C.). 

Gods and goddesses

The head of the divine Olympian family is Zeus, the god of the heavens. He approached the mortal princess Europa disguised as a bull. Apollo (APM13363) is best known as the god of the arts of the Muses, however, and is often represented as playing a stringed instrument. Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and sexuality. Dionysus is the god of wine, but also god of drama, rejuvenation of nature in springtime and both life and death. The goddess Athena is not only the protectress of Athens, but above all the patroness of organized, tactical warfare in general. Moreover, she fosters scholarly activity and craftsmanship. 

New pictorial imagery

In the fifth century B.C. the subjects represented on pottery and other kinds of objects become more commonplace. Even children's games began to be illustrated. In an especially moving gravestone image a woman who presumably died in childbirth is seen reaching towards a baby.


In the second half of the fourth century B.C. a new power emerged in Greece. King Philip II of Macedon strove to form a pan-Balkan empire. In 336 B.C. he was murdered and his twenty-year-old son Alexander (APM16073) succeeded him. He defeated the Persian king Darius and conquered all of Asia Minor, Phoenicia, Egypt and Mesopotamia where he died in Babylon at the age of thirty-three. Alexander championed the politics of ethnic integration across his diverse world empire.

Hellenistic period: 323-30 B.C.

After the sudden death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., the immense empire he left behind lacked a system of stable governance. In 301 B.C. Alexander's empire was divided into three large regions: Macedonia/Greece, Syria and Egypt under the Ptolemies.

Southern Italy and Sicily

Over a period of two centuries, from about 750 to 550 B.C., the Greeks founded colonies on the coasts of southern Italy and Sicily. Until around 440 B.C. the Greek colonists of southern Italy and Sicily imported red-figure pottery from Athens. Later, they began to manufacture a similar ware (APM11888) themselves. A remarkably large part of the vases made in southern Italy and Sicilyshow scenes related to theatre, many of which were inspired by Greek tragedies. Some towns produced an extraordinary and colourful kind of pottery: Canosa, in the heel of Italy manufactured vases with clay relief attachments and colourful painting. The shapes of these large vessels belong to the repertory of a native tribe of southern Italy, the Daunians. The specifically Greek features are the separate clay figurines. The decoration of vases made in Centuripe on Sicily is characterized by a combination of gilded relief ornaments and multicoloured painting which was applied after firing. It is widely accepted that the pottery of Centuripe was intended as marriage gifts for brides. 

  • The Parthenon in Athens.

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