Whoosh! Issue 29 - February 1999

Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography
Part III: The Ancient Greek Arts

Music And Dance

Play that funky music white girl.

Gabrielle takes up the pan flute in THE PRODIGAL.

[41] Although a great deal is known about the theory of ancient Greek music, no one really knows what it sounded like. There was only a very primitive form of musical notation, and less than 1000 measures of music covering about seven centuries are still in existence. It is very little evidence on which to base any sort of comments. But it is clear that the ancient Greeks valued music very highly.

[42] We can only venture guesses at the melodic style. For the most part, music contained only a single melodic line. There was little accompaniment for it--no drum beat, no bass line, no filler chords as a guitar would produce. Some scholars believe an instrument might have played some notes different from the melody, but it is conjecture and they cannot begin to guess how these other notes functioned.

[43] Music was one of the first subjects to become established as a field of higher education. Philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato believed music was linked with the human soul. Plato saw a parallel between men and music. He felt that complex rhythms and melodies were inappropriate because they led to depression and chaos. Plato enjoyed philosophizing about the music of the heavens -- that which echoed the movements of the heavenly bodies. Aristotle also believed that music could affect human character but he did not shy away from any particular type of music. Mathematicians enjoyed music and Pythagoras considered it a part of his realm as it manifested certain mathematical truths. Pythagoras completed fundamental work in musical acoustics, discovering that the pitch of a note corresponded to the length of a string.

[44] Most Greek music was sung, often by a choir. Though several musical instruments existed, only two--the aulos and kithara -- assumed any importance. The aulos is a double-reed instrument (like the oboe and bassoon) and the kithara is a small lyre. Other instruments include: the barbitos, a lyre with a lower range than the kithara; a magadis, which had 20 strings and was more akin to a harp; the syrinx, which was an ancestor of the organ; and brass instruments, such as the straight trumpet and curved horn, for sending signals across the battlefield.

[45] The dithyramb is a type of piece, a poetic text set to a single line of music. Originally improvised, the dithyramb was sung by tipsy partygoers in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. As it developed and became more elaborate, it was accompanied by dances and eventually evolved into the Greek choruses found in the Greek tragedies.

[46] Dances often accompanied songs, particularly on celebratory occasions. Since there is no system of dance notation it is difficult to determine what ancient dance looked like. The Greeks were influenced by Egyptian dance and a particularly noteworthy course of that influence came by way of Greek philosophers studying in Egypt. Plato was, among other things, a noted dance theoretician and wrote of dances that magnified the beauty of the body as distinct from those, which contained awkward movements and mimicked ugliness. One of the popular dances in Greece was the "yrrhiche", a weapon dance. It led Socrates to draw a parallel between the abilities of a dancer and the abilities of a warrior, claiming one could not be a great dancer without also being a fine warrior.

[47] Another type of dance, this one in honor of Apollo, required young boys to wrestle naked. If young women were to dance, they more often engaged in stately movements accompanied by a choir of virgins. Women were not, however, relegated solely to such activity. The bacchantes, an ecstatic dance of sacred madness in honor of Dionysus called for them to twirl, convulse, and stomp the ground frantically. Bacchantes were performed for the annual grape harvest, and the performers assumed the characteristics of demons so common in many ancient dances.

[48] By the end of the fifth century, some men and women took on dance as a profession. They incorporated juggling and acrobatics into their shows. There is a record of Socrates speaking very highly of a pair of dancers at a Symposium in Athens, even going so far as to imitate their dance for his audience.


Low to medium high range fortress fixer-upper. Owner needs quick sale.

Sisyphus' castle was the ancient fantasy greek equivalent of 'Southfork'.

[49] The ancient Greeks were responsible for many structural and aesthetic ideas in architecture. They took primitive shed-like buildings and developed them into ones supported by vertical posts (columns) and horizontal beams (lintels). They also incorporated aesthetic aspects into three classical orders -- Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian.

[50] Around 1500 BCE, a great number of fortresses were constructed as defensive structures. Not long after this, enormous palaces were built as were extensive burial tombs. The Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, built about 1250 BCE, is 50 feet in diameter with a 120 ton lintel over the doorway.

[51] Around 750 BCE, during the age of the tyrants, rulers flaunted their wealth by building elaborate temples. An architect's primary concern became the design of such temples and it was through these elaborate structures that many of the great developments of Greek architecture were manifested.

[52] The Oriental influences, felt throughout the arts after about 650 BCE, brought huge and significant changes to architecture. As wooden aspects of buildings were replaced by stone, much more latitude in construction was possible, allowing the aesthetic design to shape structural necessities. "Orders," or arrangements of columns, adorned Greek temples and it was these arrangements that coalesced into the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian.

[53] The earliest order was the Doric, which blossomed around 650 BCE. Among its identifying features are alternating ridged and plain blocks above the columns. The Ionic order which first appeared about 600 BCE was heavily influenced by Orientalism. Often, both Doric and Ionic influences appeared in the same building. The Acropolis displays the contrasting styles side by side. The Parthenon is Doric with an Ionic frieze while the Erechtheum is elaborately Ionic. Corinthian columns began to appear around 400 BC. These columns were marked by two rows of acanthus leaves.

Visual Arts, Pottery

[54] Because of the nature of the medium, very few examples of ancient Greek visual arts remain. Those painted on non-durable materials like wood disintegrated over the centuries and are lost forever to us. Most of what we know about the visual arts comes from pottery, as clay-fired material is among the most durable of the ancient arts.

[55] The history of painting is intertwined with that of pottery. Most of the examples we have of ancient painting are on pottery, though there are a few extant examples of paintings on burial chamber walls and stone slabs.

[56] Pottery is an ancient and practical art. Vessels were used for storage, transportation, and as containers for liquids and perfumes. Pottery has been a part of Greek culture since the Neolithic era before 3,000 BCE. The most well-known examples of very early pottery were made in Thessaly and Crete. From there, pottery centers moved on to the Peloponnese and Boetia.

[57] The earliest surviving examples of pottery were decorated with a pigment extracted from clay and applied in geometric designs. By 2,000 BCE, paintings of plant and sea life, particularly the octopus, adorned many pieces. The wheels for throwing pottery at this time were sophisticated enough to make paper-thin cups. Potters mass-produced their wares and sold them not only across Greece, but exported them to Egypt, Italy, and Sicily.

[58] Changes in design and ornamentation shaped the work of the ensuing centuries. Geometric and abstract styles replaced realistic figures, only to wane in popularity to be replaced by realism again. Significant changes in pottery came during 725-600 BCE when East met West and Oriental styles mingled with Western taste. Pieces were decorated with sphinxes, sirens, griffins, and chimeras, as well as other exotic animals.

[59] By 550 BCE, the center for pottery shifted to Athens, as so many artists were drawn to that great city. Athenian potters developed orange-red and shiny black pigments and specialized techniques exclusive to each color. They incorporated silhouettes, multiple-firings, and engravings into their work. And new to this era, artists signed their vases. Schools rose around specific potters' names such as Exekias and Amasis. These artists painted mythic figures, most commonly Hercules, Perseus, and Dionysus on their works.

[60] As artists perfected their skills and began to represent figures three-dimensionally, pottery's role at the center of the arts declined. With curved surfaces and the inherent limitations of clay, pottery painters were unable to match the realism attainable in other media. By 320 BCE, pottery as an art form had all but died out in Athens.

[61] Pottery provides keys to many aspects of Greek life. We know by the paintings on them that the Greeks had couches, chairs, stools, tables, and chests. Couches were used as beds and as places to sit or recline during the day. They were intricately carved with claw feet or hooves on the legs, which were often turned on a lathe. Some of the later headrests depicted birds and animals. Tables were usually small and portable and, like couches, often had turned legs ending in a claw foot. There were rectangular and roundtables, as well as an odd variety with three legs: two at one end and one on the other.

[62] Sculpture assumed the same sets of influences as pottery did. Sculptors worked on limestone, marble, bronze, gold and ivory, terra-cotta, and wood, though wood and of limestone use became less common after 500 BCE. Though it may seem that these are durable materials, only a few dozen statues survive, and most of them are not complete.


[63] The breadth and sophistication of the arts in Ancient Greece are a staggering testament to the value they placed in culture. Their work established genres, styles, techniques, and philosophies still found undergirding artists today.

[64] I have only presented a very cursory examination of the major art forms. I can assure you that the more you read about them, the more you are apt to find yourself shaking your head in disbelief at just how much the ancient Greeks accomplished.


Ancient/Classical History

"The Art of Literature: DRAMA: Dramatic literature: DRAMA AS AN EXPRESSION OF A CULTURE: Drama in Western cultures." Britannica Online.

Auston, Norman. Meaning and Being in Myth, University Park, PA (Penn State University Press, 1990)

Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Boardman, Griffin, and Murray ed. Greece and the Hellenistic World. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1986)

"Greek Literature: Ancient Greek literature: The Genres" Britannica Online.

"The History of Western Painting: Ancient Greek:" Britannica Online.

"The Homeric Epics: Stabilizing the text." Britannica Online.

Winnington-Ingram, R.P. "Greece," Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley B. Sadie, editor (London: Macmillan, 1980)

Zetterberg, Julie. "The Costume Page."


Carolyn Bremer Carolyn Bremer
Carolyn Bremer is a composer of issue-oriented, experimental and political music, and head of the composition program at the University of Oklahoma.

Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Favorite line: Picking just one out of the plethora of deserving candidates is utterly impossible.
First episode seen: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Least favorite episode: FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/216) And I'm really hoping that doesn't get bumped out of the bottom spot by a fourth season Joxer bumble.

Ms. Bremer has previously written for Whoosh:

"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part I: Timetable And Overview", Whoosh! #26 (9811)

"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part II: The Intersection Of Myth And History", Whoosh! #27 (9812)

"Duality and Completeness: An Analysis of the Xena: Warrior Princess Theme Music", Whoosh! #20 (9805)

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