Articles About Art - Archaic Greek Sculpture and The Rise of The Polis
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Archaic Greek Sculpture and The Rise of The Polis*
With the Dorian invasions, the old monarchies of the Aegean came to an end, to be replaced by
feudal aristocracies in which the conquering warrior tribes lorded it over the indigenous peoples.
Gradually the various separate elements of the population interbred, fusing disparate cultural
traditions into a single Hellenic stock.
This at least is the general rule. In Sparta, however, the Dorians kept themselves apart and
reduced the indigenous population (whom they called "Helots") to the condition of slaves. The
Spartans maintained themselves as a warrior class, living off the labour and produce of the
Helots. Perhaps largely as a result of this specialisation in militarism, Sparta remained the most
powerful of the Greek states from about 900 BC until the rise of Athens in about 600 BC.
At the same time that a "Greek" people was thus being forged, a widespread colonial
movement was taking place, which in the space of some three hundred years, brought the entire
Aegean Sea, parts of the Black Sea, the coast of Libya, Sicily, parts of the Italian mainland and
eastern Spain within the compass of the Greek world. The causes of this colonising movement are
not known, but presumably overpopulation, resulting from huge waves of invaders moving down
into a country with very limited natural resources, would have played a major part.
Concerning the nature of the colonial movement, there are two important points to be made. The first is that the colonisers, as early as this considered themselves Hellenes, members, that is
to say, of a people bound together by shared linguistic, religious and cultural bonds. Without this
sense of national identity, many of the features of Greek civilisation would be inconceivable, such
as, for example, the Games or the influence of Greek poets, philosophers and artists on the quality
of Greek life as a whole. With it, a more or less free cultural exchange was possible despite
immediate political and experiental differences.
The second point is the converse of the first. In parallel with this sense of shared identity
there existed a fierce and overriding ideal of separateness and independence. We find that the
Greek city-states remained, for the most part, politically independent of one another until the
time of Alexander the Great (although Athens had something resembling an empire during the
time of Perikles with the so-called Delian League). More than this, when colonies were established, they were constituted as independent city-states themselves, in no way subordinate to the
mother states, and bound only by ties of religion, culture and kinship.
In general, then, we find a situation in which each of the various components of "Greater
Greece" was able to develop an independent economy and system of social relations, but at the
same time contribute to and reap the benefits of a much more broadly-based linguistic, cultural,
scientific and aesthetic tradition.
This is not to imply, however, that the Ancient Greeks lived together in harmony and tolerance. They squabbled and intrigued and slaughtered one another with as much verve as any other people in history, the sentimental interpretations of many writers on the subject notwithstanding. The point concerns the way in which the culture was defined and the identities within which it operated, not the quality of its social relations.
Sustained though it was by shared cultural institutions, the sense of Hellenic identity that we
have been discussing depended equally upon a sense of being somehow different from, if not
necessarily better than, everybody else. We can read this attitude especially clearly in the
negative: anyone who was not a Greek was referred to by the Greeks as a "Barbarian". While the
word "barbarian" did not necessarily carry the negative connotations that it does today, there is a
clearly nationalistic prejudice at work here, essentially one reflecting a distinction between "us"
and "the rest".
Whatever their attitude towards non-Greeks, the Hellenic people began, during the Archaic
period, to create a system of equality among themselves in the establishment of the democratic
polis. The word "polis" (plural: "poleis") is usually translated in English as 'city state' but, as
Kitto and other writers point out, the word also has a spiritual dimension that is lacking in the
English. It implies the life of the people as much as the system of control exercised over them.
Greek poets and historians frequently referred to the polis as an institution comprising
people rather than houses, stone walls, wooden structures, roads or shipyards. In other words the
city state was the equivalent of a particularly intense communal or corporate spirit.
Establishing the polis system meant the overthrow of the old hereditary aristocracies and the
institution of political forms in which the will of the people could become law. In most of the
Greek cities this process divided itself into two phases: first the institution of tyrannies, or rule
by one man, and second, the development of democracies proper.
It is worth noting here that in the Greek context the word "tyrant" did not carry the connotations of violent and arbitrary rule that it carries today; the word picked up these connotations along the way. In the Greek context, the tyrant was more often than not the champion of the people in their struggle against the ruling aristocratic classes. He was seldom an absolute ruler in the sense of ruling without recourse to the will of the people.
* Drawn from notes compiled by R Becker & E Basson for the University of South Africa