The Greek Classical Period (500–323 b.c.e.) had a vast amount of influence on Western culture in terms of art, literature, philosophy, and architecture. This period occurred between the Archaic Period (800–500 b.c.e.) and Hellenistic Period (323–31 b.c.e.) and took place near the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Many renowned philosophers and writers appeared at this time, such as Aristotle, Euripides, and Sophocles.
Greece was a collection of city-states with different forms of government. The Classical Period marked the contribution of democracy to Western civilization, with its roots in the city-state of Athens. It was an aristocrat, Cleisthenes, who brought the ideas of democracy to Athens in 510 b.c.e. The word democracy comes from the Greek word demos meaning “the dominion of the people.” Cleisthenes’ objective was to attain more power for the Greeks in Athens, by giving the people the power to vote. Democracy for the Greeks meant that a majority of votes, taken in an assembly (which was every male’s duty when randomly chosen to attend), decided an issue. Males who did not attend a required assembly were no longer considered citizens, and their civil rights were taken away.
There were political conflicts during the Classical Period as well. The golden age, during the Classical Period, marked a time when Athens was strong. During this time the Greeks waged war on the Persians, who were a great threat with their growing military power, wealth, and size. A deadly war broke out in 479 b.c.e., during the Persian invasions, in which the Greeks destroyed the Persians. Although Sparta and Athens joined forces in their conquest over the Persians, hostility between the two city-states grew and eventually erupted into a war against each other, known as the Peloponnesian War (431–404 b.c.e.). The end of the Peloponnesian War marked the end of the golden age due to the Spartans defeat of the Athenians.
Greek literature during the Classical Period brought about drama and its genres. The three tragedian playwrights were Euripides (484–406 b.c.e.), Aeschylus (525–456 b.c.e.), and Sophocles (496–406 b.c.e.). Euripides was known for such plays as Hippolytus (428 b.c.e.) and Medea (431 b.c.e.) and his development of the New Comedy, such as in Alcestis, all while bringing his realist views into drama. Aeschylus, a great poet as well as playwright, first brought a second actor to the stage. Aeschylus is known for many tragedies such as Suppliants (490 b.c.e.), Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.), and Prometheus Bound (456 b.c.e.). Sophocles was also a popular and talented tragedian who performed his plays at the Festival of Dionysus. Sophocles was known for writing tragedies such as his Theban Plays: Antigone (441 b.c.e.), Oedipus Rex (425 b.c.e.), and Oedipus in Colonus (401 b.c.e.) as well as Electra (c. 410 b.c.e.) and Ajax (c. 440 b.c.e.). Sophocles is noted as one of the first playwrights to bring a third actor to the stage.
Philosophy was ignited during the Classical Period because classical Greeks started to realize the importance of rational thinking and that life occurrences happened by means other than the supernatural. This redefined and pervaded philosophical thought throughout Athens. The three major philosophers of this period were Socrates (470–399 b.c.e.), Plato (427–347 b.c.e.), and Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.). Socrates taught Plato, one of his top students, his views on the world. Plato then went on to become a philosopher, and his top pupil was Aristotle. Aristotle, who developed the scientific method, went on to educate Alexander the Great. Much of Western philosophy has been built on these great thinkers’ ideas.
Sculpture became more realistic during the Classical Period. The human form through sculpture became more precise and three dimensional, emphasizing Greek realist ideals. Phidias and Polyclitus were two popular sculptors during this time. Phidias (490–430 b.c.e.) created statues of Athena and sculptures in the Parthenon as well as the statue of Zeus at Olympia. Polyclitus, popular during the early fifth century b.c.e., sculpted a famous statue of Hera as well as one of Doryphoros, a spear-bearer. The masterpieces of the time characterized the Greeks’ use of ebony, marble, bronze, ivory, and gold.
Architecture also became more distinct and had features unique to Greece. There were three types of columns developed during this period, demonstrated by the Parthenon in Athens: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These architectural features were named after the cities in which they were developed. Doric is the simplest column with no ornamentation at the top. The Ionic had slightly more elaborate decorations at the top and bottom of each column. Corinthian columns were ostentatious and were highly ornamental. Philip of Macedon (381–336 b.c.e.) unified the Greeks through conquest. The Classical Period ended with the rise of Philip II’s son Alexander the Great (353–323 b.c.e.) and his conquest of the Persian Empire. This led to the development of the Hellenistic culture, which blended the cultures of Greece, Indian, Persia, and Egypt.
- Boardman, John. Greek Culture: The Classical Period. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991;
- De Souda, Philip. Greek and Persian Wars. London: Osprey, 2003;
- Freeman, Charles. The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World. New York: Penguin, 2000;
- Grant, Michael. The Classical Greeks. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989.
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