In Athens, the fifth century BC served as a period in which art, literature, and thought flourished, and it ultimately defines our image of Ancient Greece.
by Patrick Garner
In the 21st century, much of what the world thinks of as ancient Greece is based on 5th century B.C. Greek architecture. We visualize the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens, which was completed in 438 B.C. at the height of the Athenian empire.
We also picture the Erechtheion with its iconic Porch of the Maidens—six elegant Caryatids that for 2,400 years have stoically faced the Parthenon.
But these marvels were hardly isolated achievements and are just a hint of the intellectual accomplishments of classical Greece.
Thought blossomed in fifth century Athens
An unanticipated flowering occurred in mathematics, ethics, politics, history, logic, medicine, theatre, sculpture, pottery, painting, and physics. What the Greeks attained during this brief moment has influenced western civilization for more than two millennia.
The genius of this period—a time span lasting less than two hundred years—may be attributed to a rare confluence of events. Cosmopolitan Athens attracted the greatest thinkers and craftsmen throughout the Mediterranean.
Protagoras, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle created whole new disciplines that guided thinkers for thousands of years. Pheidias, arguably the greatest sculptor to have lived, had workshops in Athens and Olympia. Painters, potters, and jewelers thrived as demand for their wares never ceased.
What were the confluences that birthed this flowering of thought and art? In the fifth century, Athens was indisputably the most powerful city in the western Mediterranean. Multiple cities paid tribute to it; those that tried to break away were severely punished. Consequently, the Athenian treasury became immense.
The most memorable public works of the period were the brainchild of the great statesman Pericles, who persuaded the Athenians, among other things, to use their wealth to create the Parthenon and Erechtheion.
The design and construction of these unique structures required hundreds of craftsmen. Contemporary historians have attributed the proliferation of these beautiful temples partially to the use of slave labor.
But as Paul MacKendrick in The Greek Stones Speak notes, “citizens, resident aliens and slaves all worked side by side, and all received pay for equal work.”
Athenian wealth was not, any more than slave labor, the only factor driving this renaissance. Architecture, sculpture and theatre in the centuries preceding the miracle of the 5th century had been steadily becoming more sophisticated.
The rigid sculptures once easily attributed to Egyptian influence became looser and more lifelike. By the time the sculptors Pheidias and Praxiteles were active, classical art was at its culmination.
Were sculptors tradesmen or artists in ancient Greece?
All of these artists worked for the polis—the city of Athens—and dedicated their finest works to the gods. Quality was put before quantity. Craftsmen (ancient Greece’s word for art was skill) competed with each other for acclaim each seeking perfection.
Similarly, the classical thinkers gravitated to the Greek capitol city. Young men had leisure time, and teachers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle guided intellectual thought among the sons of the wealthy merchants and politicians.
Plato, in particular, systemized logic and philosophy. Aristotle created the methodology we use today for analyzing the natural world. These unique achievements revolutionized the world of ideas. Their brilliance was soon mimicked by the Stoics—philosophers who conducted their teachings in the Agora, or marketplace, in Athens.
It is telling to contrast the splendor of Athens during the fifth century to the simple lifestyle of Sparta—particularly in the context of intellectual and artistic achievement. Athenians were surrounded by magnificence while to the Spartans, beauty was the antithesis of strength.
As Thucydides, the historian writing late in the second half of the fifth century, wrote, to judge by the comparable surviving monuments in Athens and Sparta, coming generations would think Athens more powerful than she was and Sparta much less.
The tribute wealth accumulated by the Athenians was reinvested to create grandeur while Sparta’s collection of small villages disdained even decorated pottery.
In Sparta, temples existed to Apollo, Artemis, and Athena, but the remaining Olympic gods were not given the acclaim that Athenians granted as a matter of course. And sculpture in Sparta? With the exception of the gods they favored, none was allowed.
The governance of the city-states was different, as well. Athens prided itself during this golden period with being a democracy. Spartan politics were communal, and overt displays of wealth were scorned.
One city became rich—and willing to display its assets—while the other remained focused on frugality and constant preparations for war.
Today, we celebrate the astounding achievements of the Athenian artists during this period, but we should not lose sight of the fact that all the art was the work of men considered to be mere craftsmen.
Pheidias and Praxiteles, whom art critics concede are rivaled only by Michelangelo, who was born some two thousand years later, were serving the polis, the city-state. Their critics were the public, and they sought to glorify the gods.
It is telling that of the Nine Muses, who watched over the noble uses that the intellect makes of leisure time, none was in charge of architecture or the arts.
The omission was solely because the Greeks did not consider the work of architects and sculptors to be at the same high level as that of the poet, astronomer, or even musician.
As historians have remarked, numerous civilizations were unable to recognize their own accomplishments. Applying this critique to the golden age of Athens is not entirely accurate because so much from that time has been lost.
We are hardly in a position to say with authority that the Greeks viewed those creating the Parthenon as tradesmen. Regardless, in retrospect—and long after much their art were reduced to rubble—we can easily compare every culture and nation that followed the Athenian awakening and conclude that none have been as influential.
The confidence and accomplishments of the Athenians may never be repeated. Much of what we celebrate today as wisdom and art was identified or discovered in that brief burst of light.
Much has indeed been lost. But enough has managed to survive millennia to affirm that the Athenian experiment was unique and that western civilization would be far poorer today without it.
Patrick Garner is the author of three novels about Greek gods in the contemporary world. He is also the creator and narrator of the breakout podcast, Garner’s Greek Mythology with listeners in 134 countries.