THE CLASSICAL PERIOD
The victorious outcome of the Persian Wars (479 B.C., Battle of Plataea) had a catalytic impact on political, cultural, and martial levels throughout the Greek world. However, there were two cities that had a central role: Athens and Sparta. Almost all the independent city-states rallied around them into two major groups, the First Athenian Alliance (478 B.C.) and the Peloponnesian Alliance. Their competition and conflict, which spread throughout the Greek world from Asia Minor to Magna Graecia (Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C.), resulted in the ultimate weakening of both, despite Sparta’s military victory. Notwithstanding the temporary Athenian recovery in the 4th century B.C. (Second Athenian Alliance, 378 B.C.), new military powers emerged, such as the Theban Hegemony, with temporary results. The gradual interference of the Macedonian kingdom in the political affairs of Southern Greece, with Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, led to the loss of independence and the ultimate subjugation of most city-states to Macedonia (Battle of Chaeronea, 338 B.C.). The year 323 B.C. (death of Alexander the Great and division of his vast empire into many kingdoms of the Diadochoi) is the chronological limit of the Classical Period and leads us into the Hellenistic Period.
No doubt, the political and cultural dominance of Athens, not only in the course of its military hegemony (479-431 B.C.) but also throughout the Classical Period (479-323 B.C.), was a catalyst not only for the ancient Greek world, but also for the entire contemporary Western world via Roman art.
It is significant that the term “classical” (from the Latin classicus: one who belongs to the highest class of citizens, the excellent, the prominent) was used by the Roman grammarians of the 2nd century B.C. in order to evaluate and rank the ancient Greek writers according to order of importance. Thus, from an artistic standpoint, the term “classical” was identified by art historians with aesthetic perfection, harmony, authority, and eventually with all aspects of Greco-Roman antiquity (philosophy, theatre, athletics, fine arts, music, etc.).
Ancient Athens was the main driver of this phenomenon. The foundation of the Athenian democracy by Cleisthenes in 508 B.C., and the expansion of the powers of the citizen body by Pericles and Ephialtes in 451 B.C. gave birth to a new system of civil governance, which now we can call direct representative democracy. From this system all the variations of contemporary representative democracies originate. Civic involvement led in turn to a broader self-awareness of the citizen and an understanding of his responsible role in political and social life.
In art, the Classical Period is divided into smaller periods that are marked by corresponding political events and social developments, as follows:
- Τhe Early Classical Period or Severe Style (479-450 B.C.)
- Μature Classical Period (450-425 B.C.)
- Period of the “Rich Style” (425-380 B.C.)
- Late Classical Period (380-323 B.C.)
During the Classical Period Athens becomes the cultural and intellectual center of the whole Greek world, where the greatest artists, architects, philosophers, and poets converged. With the inspiration and direction of Pericles grandiose building programs are developed on the Acropolis? the premier structure being the Parthenon (447-432 B.C.).
In Athens, the theatrical works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are staged for the first time; architects, such as Mnesikles, Iktinos, and Kallikrates, painters, such as Mikon and Polygnotos, sculptors, such as Pheidias, Polykleitos, Agorakritos, and Praxiteles in the 4th century B.C. were working; philosophers like Protagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were teaching.
In the conquest of philosophy, Logic (ο Λόγος) is placed above Myth (ο Μύθος). Works of art are inspired by an anthropocentric concept that places special emphasis on the harmonic connection of the individual with the social collective, and are characterized by the so-called Classical ethic accompanied by restraint of emotion and a tranquil mental state. Gradually, as we progress to the 4th century B.C., the artists master the third dimension of space (Lysippus), a phenomenon that manifests with greater intensity as we approach the threshold of the Hellenistic Period, and at the same time philosophical views change dramatically concerning the position of the individual in the face of his social environment – the new environment of the coming Hellenistic Period.