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Art and Culture

The influential role of Classical Greek arts and architecture is undisputed. The emergence of modern Greece after the long period of Turkish and Ottoman rule has brought many artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians to the forefront of Greek culture, among them the Nobel-prizewinning poets Giórgos Seféris and Odysséas Elitis, the filmmakers Mihális Kakoiánnis and Theo Angélopoulos, the plastic artist Takis, and singers Nana Mouskouri and Maria Callas.


Construction techniques

The chief building material was stone: limestone tufa (often shell limestone), and marble from the quarries on Pentelikon, Thássos and Náxos. The stone blocks were quarried with a pickaxe and extracted with the aid of metal or wooden wedges; the latter soaked to make them expand. Often the blocks were then shaped on the spot into architectural elements: columns, capitals, models of statues.

The blocks were removed from the quarry down a slipway constructed so as to have a regular gradient. Weighing on average five tonnes, the blocks were loaded onto wooden sledges which were lowered on ropes hitched round fixed bollards. The blocks were then transferred to carts or drays drawn by bullocks for transport to the building site.

On the site the rough or prepared blocks were unloaded with the aid of levers and rollers and sent to the workshop to be dressed or decorated (fluting, moulding) or carved (capitals, pediments and metopes). The blocks were raised into position with a block and tackle and hoist or derrick. The dressed stones, which were placed one upon another without mortar, were held in place by H or N clamps. Wooden or metal pins were used to secure the piles of drums which made up a column: the holes which held them can still be seen. Stone columns received a coat of stucco.

In large-scale constructions the blocks of stone were cut and placed in various ways according to the purpose and period of the building and the means and time available. No bonding material was used. This gives Greek stonework an almost unrivalled aesthetic and functional value. The Cyclopean style of construction, rough but sturdy, is to be found in some Mycenaean structures, especially at Tiryns. Polygonal bonding was used in all periods, often for foundations; at first the blocks were rough hewn, then came curved surfaces and finally flat ones. Trapezoidal bonding, with varying degrees of regularity, was widespread in the 4C BC. Rectangular bonding, which occurred in all periods, was used most frequently in the Classical period.

Mycenaean Period (1550–1100 BC)

The Mycenaean palace stood within a fortified city (acropolis) surrounded by Cyclopean walls, so-called because legend said they had been built by giant masons, the Cyclops .

The palace itself had a simple and logical plan: one entrance, a courtyard with the throne room on one side preceded by a vestibule and the main reception rooms on the other. The largest room was the megaron with four columns supporting the roof and surrounding the central hearth; it served both domestic and religious purposes. Beyond lay the private apartments of the king and queen, usually furnished with baths.

The best examples of Mycenaean palaces are Mycenae, Tiryns, Chios and Gla.

The dead were buried on the edge of the city in three different sorts of graves: a pit grave, a rock sepulchre or a circular domed chamber ( thólos ) with an entrance passage (drómos) . The skilled craftsmanship of the objects found in these tombs indicates that the princes who were buried in them were astonishingly rich; for many years the graves were known as ‘Treasuries’. The best examples of Mycenaean graves are at Mycenae, Chios, Vapheio, Peristéria in the Peloponnese and Orchomenos in Boeotia.

Temples (700 BC onwards)

The temple was the dwelling place of the god or goddess to whom it was dedicated and housed his or her statue; some temples were dedicated to more than one divinity. Thought to represent the architectural ideal, they are essentially a blend of structural simplicity and harmonious proportions. The proportions were governed by the module, the average radius of the column, which determined the height since the column was the basic element in the elevation of a building.

In some buildings the architects departed from rigid verticals and horizontals to correct optical distortion.

The horizontal entablatures were slightly bowed, making the centre imperceptibly higher than the ends; each column was inclined towards its inner neighbour as it rose, the angle of incline increasing from the centre of the colonnade towards the outer corner.

Sculpted figures, often didactic, were placed on the secondary architectural features: the tympanum (pediment) and the metopes (architrave) .

The temples were painted: the background was generally red with the prominent features in blue to form a contrast. These brilliant colours made the stone or white marble sculptures stand out. A gilded bronze colour was used to pick out certain decorative motifs such as shields or acroteria .

There were three main types. The large peripteral temple consisted of a central oblong chamber ( naos ) containing the statue of the divinity and entered through a door, with a porch at either end screened by two columns; one porch (prónaos) led into the naos , the other (opisthódomos) contained the temple’s most precious offerings. The roof of the naos might be supported on two rows of columns. Behind the naos there was occasionally an inner chamber (adyton) which only the priest might enter. This central section was surrounded by a colonnade (peristyle) and the temple was described in terms of the number of columns in the front and rear colonnades: hexastyle – six. The length of a temple was usually twice its width. The ‘in antis’ temple consisted of a naos and pronaos screened by two columns between two pilasters ( antae in Latin) at the ends of the extended walls of the naos. The thólos was a votive or commemorative circular building with a peristyle.

The main elements of a temple were the base (stylobate) , the columns, the entablature supporting a wooden roof frame covered with tiles and a pediment at either end. The articulation of these elements gave rise to the orders.

Developed on the mainland among the Dorian people, the Doric Order was the most common style in Greece from the 7C onwards. The columns, which had 20 flutes, rested directly on the stylobate without bases; the capitals were plain. The entablature consisted of three parts one above the other: the architrave, the frieze and the cornice; the frieze was composed of metopes, panels often carved in high relief, alternating with triglyphs, stone slabs with two vertical grooves. The triangular pediments were sculpted with scenes in high relief and also adorned with decorative motifs (acroteria) at the angles. Along the sides above the cornice were sculpted ornaments (antefixa) which served as gargoyles.

The Ionians who had settled in Asia Minor in the 5C BC created the Ionic Order, which was considered a feminine style; its delicate grace and rich ornament contrasted with the austere strength of the Doric Order. Its main characteristics are tall slim columns with 24 flutes resting on moulded bases and crowned by capitals in the form of a double scroll; an entablature consisting of an architrave, a continuous sculpted frieze and a cornice decorated with egg and dart and leaf and dart moulding; a pediment with acroteria shaped like palm leaves at the angles. The best example is the Temple of Athena Nike in the Acropolis.

Invented in Corinth in the 5C BC the Corinthian Order did not spread until the 4C BC; it was very popular in the Roman period. It is a derivative of the Ionic Order and its chief distinction is the scroll capital almost entirely covered in curled acanthus leaves. The best examples are the Olympieion and Hadrian’s Arch in Athens and the Temple of Octavian in Corinth. The capital was invented by Kallimachos , a sculptor and contemporary of Pheidias; he is thought to have been inspired by a basket filled with flowers.


Nearly all religious sites in Ancient Greece included a theatre originally designed for the Dionysiac festivals that included hymns or dithyrambs, which later developed into tragedy.

The original wooden structures were later built of stone and from the 4C BC comprised:

Ο a central circular area (orchestra) where the chorus performed round the altar of the god and the actors wearing the appropriate masks acted their parts;

Ο tiers of seats ( koilon or theatron ) extending round more than half the orchestra to form the segment of a circle; the first row of seats was reserved for the priests and officials; a promenade (diázoma) ran round between the upper and lower tiers of seats. The audience reached their seats from above, from the diázoma or through passages (parodos) leading into the orchestra;

Ο a proscenium (proskenion) , a sort of portico forming a backdrop, and a stage (skene) , originally a storeroom. In the Hellenistic period the stage was incorporated into the performing area; the back wall improved the acoustics.

Odeons were covered theatres, which became very numerous in the Roman period.

The major theatres are in Athens, Delphi, Árgos and Epidauros and Dodona.


Archaic Period (700–500 BC)

In the 7C BC the Greek world began to produce its first full-size statues, strange, rigid figures made of wood (xoanon) , with ecstatic expressions inspired by Asiatic, particularly Egyptian, models.

In the 6C BC two well-known and distinctive types of statue were produced: the kouros , a naked young man, and the kore , a young woman dressed in a tunic, Doric peplos or Ionian chiton. The figures, which were life size or larger, were sometimes made of bronze, like the Piraeus Apollo discovered in 1959, but more often of limestone (poros) or marble and then painted with vivid colours.

The high reliefs, carved in stone and also painted, mostly come from pediments and are impressive for their realistic and expressive appearance; the bronze sculptures are more stylised.

The Acropolis Museum in Athens has an important series of Archaic figures ( kouroi and korai , high-relief pedimental sculptures, moscophoroi); the National Museum displays the Warrior of Marathon and several kouroi including the kouros of Sounion, the oldest known (600 BC), and the kouros of Anávissos; the Piraeus Apollo (late 6C BC) is to be found in the Piraeus Museum.

Other examples typical of Archaic art are the stone Gorgon from the Temple of Artemis in Corfu (Corfu Museum), the marble frieze from the Siphnian Treasury and two kouroi representing Cleobis and Biton (Delphi Museum).

Classical Period (500–300 BC)

There was a transition period, marked by the Charioteer of Delphi (475 BC), where the figure turns slightly to the right and takes his weight on one hip; passing through two distinct phases, Classical statuary then freed itself from the rigid frontal stance.

In the idealistic phase (5C BC) Greek sculpture reached its height in the work of Polykleitos and Pheidias . The former established a standard model, the canon . The latter created an ideal standard of beauty composed of strength, majesty and serenity in the delicately carved lines of his marble figures: his genius is expressed in the Parthenon sculptures (Acropolis Museum, British Museum, Louvre); unfortunately the famous chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Zeus at Olympia was destroyed.

Other typical works of the period include Athena Mourning in the Acropolis Museum and Poseidon from Artemision in the National Museum.

During the ‘naturalist’ phase (4C) majesty gave way to grace and the female nude made its appearance. Artists began to compose from nature giving their figures expressive faces; the best known are Skopas, Lysippos and Praxiteles who produced tall figures such as the Hermes of Olympia.

The Apollo Belvedere (Vatican) also dates from this time as do the great bronzes in the Athens Museum: the Ephebe from Antikythera and the Athena and Artemis in the archaeological museum in Piraeus.

Tanágra in Boeotia produced the famous funerary figurines in terracotta.

Hellenistic Period (300–100 BC)

Sculpture began to be influenced by expressionism and orientalism. Realism, sometimes excessive, was used to express not only pain but also movement as in the Laocoon (Vatican) and the Victory of Samothrace (Louvre); at the same time it could produce the beautiful serenity of the Melos Aphrodite (Venus de Milo) . Artists took delight in representing old people and children, such as the bronze jockey from Artemision in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Painting and ceramics

Except for the Minoan frescoes in Crete or Thíra (Santorini) and the Hellenistic funerary paintings in Macedonia, few examples of Ancient Greek painting have survived. In fact, although painting played a major role in the decoration of sculptures and monuments, it was less important as an art form in its own right and the works of the great painters of the 4C BC – Zeuxis and above all Apelles, Alexander the Great’s favourite artist – have not survived the passage of time. For a knowledge of Greek painting one must study the decoration of pottery on the many vases which have come down to us.

The ornamentation painted on vases is one of the major sources of information about Greek religion and civilisation.

These vases had specific functions: the pithos was used for storing grain, the amphora for the storing and transport of oil or wine. The pelike , krater and hydria were used as jars for oil, wine and water respectively. The oinochoë was used as a jug for pouring water or wine into a kantharos; the kylix was a drinking cup and the rhyton was a vessel shaped like a horn or an animal’s head. The lekythos was a funerary vase.

Styles developed in step with the great artistic periods; there were several types.

Creto-Mycenaean vases (1700–1400 BC): scenes of flora and fauna treated with great freedom and decorative sense. Typical examples: octopus amphora; Phaistos krater (Herakleion Museum); Santorini vases (National Museum in Athens).

Archaic vases (1000–600 BC): geometric style in the Cyclades and Attica with large kraters or amphorae decorated with dotted lines, the key pattern, checks, lozenges and sometimes animals; orientalising style in Rhodes and Corinth where small vessels were decorated with oriental motifs: roses, lotus sprays, sphinxes and deer.

Typical examples: amphorae from the Kerameikos and the Dipylon (National Museum in Athens); perfume flasks (Corinth Museum).

Black-figure vases (600–480 BC): subjects for decoration drawn from mythology or history: silhouettes in black painted on a red ochre ground.

Typical examples: krater showing Herakles and Nereus (National Museum in Athens).

Red-figure vases (480–320 BC): subject for decoration not only mythological (so called ‘severe’ style – 5C BC) but also familiar and more light-hearted: scenes and figures drawn in detail and accentuated by a black or white ground (lekythoi). Typical examples: krater from Kalyx and lekythoi from Erétria (National Museum in Athens).

An artistic tradition open to many influences

The accession to the throne of Otto of Bavaria in 1832 heralded the arrival of foreign artists who taught at the College of Fine Arts, founded in 1843. They influenced numerous Greek artists; other Greek painters studied abroad, notably in Munich, where Nikifóros Lítras (1832–1904), who concentrated on painting scenes from daily life and portraiture, spent time. Another famous name in Greek painting of this period was Konstandínos Volonákis (1839–1907), who made his name as a marine artist, although his Munich Circus exhibited at the National Gallery in Athens shows a move towards Impressionism. In all spheres of art, the second half of the 19C in Greece bore the stamp of officially approved academicism.

At the turn of the century art in Greece underwent an important evolution under the influence, in painting, of Konstandínos Parthénis (1878–1967), who followed the path of Impressionism and Fauvism and taught at the College of Fine Arts, and of the sculptor Konstandínos Dimitriádis (1881–1943), who was inspired by Rodin. They opened the way for Greek art to embrace modern forms and the most advanced movements of the time, as seen in the work of the expressionist painter Giórgos Bouziáni (1885–1959), cubist Níkos Gíka (1906–94), and surrealist Níkos Engonópoulos (1910–85).

After the Second World War, Greek art flourished again, following two principal directions. Together with the search for a true Greek spirit, of which the main exponent was Iánnis Morális (b.1916), there developed a strong movement concerned with contemporary forms. Its most notable members were the abstract painters Aléxandros Kontópoulos (1905–75), Krístos Lefákis (1906–68) and Iánnis Spyrópoulos (1912–90), and the sculptors Giórgos Zogolópoulos and Akilleús Apérgis . Although on the one hand there is a clear return to representative art, notably with the painter Iánnis Gaitis (1923–84) and the sculptor Giórgos Giorgiádis , those Greek artists working in a contemporary vein are ever more closely linked with the various Western artistic movements, many of them working abroad.

In addition to figures such as George Candilis (1913–1995), the architect who designed the urban development at Toulouse-le-Murail and also worked in Berlin, and Mario Prassinos (1916–1985), well known for his pointillist works in black and white and the cartoons he produced for the Aubusson weavers, two names have gained international recognition. Iánnis Kounellis (b.1936) lives and works in Italy, where he has been active in the Arte Povera movement; after offering performances and installations, he has taken a more minimalist line which purports to be close to poetry in its original form. Panayótis Vassilákis, known as Takis (b.1925), has been living in Paris since 1954. His name is associated with technology in art, with his research into magnetism using constructions of metal rods, indicator lights and electromagnets, and making musical clocks.

Greek Intellectuals

A new cultural age dawned with Homer’s great epics; these were soon followed by Hesiod, then the great historians and tragedians of the 5C BC. At the same time, intellectuals were trying to understand the world, nature and humankind: physics, mathematics, medicine and philosophy all have their roots in Greece.

The first storytellers

Two poets are identified with the origins of Greek literature: Homer (late 9C to mid-8C BC), although there is little firm evidence of his existence and many believe his oeuvre to be the work of various authors, and the peasant poet Hesiod from Boeotia (late 8C BC), of whom more is known from the contents of his work.

Homer’s two great epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey , which include some of the most famous characters of the Greek imagination. The Iliad does not simply recount the story of the Trojan War; it focuses on the anger of Achilles and how it jeopardises the whole of the Greek attack on Troy. Less warlike in tone, the Odyssey recounts a long journey during which the hero Ulysses has to overcome many dangers before returning home to his love. Both are tales of the struggles of man, but the gods play significant roles, siding with one party or another.

Hesiod recounts the origins of the gods and their conflicts in the Theogony ; his other great poem, Works and Days , traces the origins of humankind and depicts a rustic ideal.

It may be significant that Homer wrote mainly in the Ionian dialect, and that legend associates him with one of the Greek colonies on the west coast of Asia Minor, because the intellectual revolution that took place in the 6C BC occurred in that region of the Greek world. The ancient Greeks were the first Europeans to enquire into physics, astronomy and philosophy and the origin of Western science is bound up with the emergence of a group of intellectual figures on the central west coast of Asia Minor. It was from what is now the west coast of Turkey that scientific and philosophical enquiry spread to the Greek mainland.

Origins of the theatre

There is convincing evidence to suggest that Greek theatre derives from religious rituals associated with the cult of Dionysos, whose places of worship formed the backdrop for the first plays. Aristotle relates the origin of tragedy with a narrative choral song, known as the dithyramb, that was performed at particular festivals of Dionysus. At some stage, an individual performer must have stepped out of the chorus and sang or spoke in the role of a character from the mythical story that was the subject matter of the dithyramb.

It was in Attica in the 5C BC that the theatre began to come into its own, with the appearance of the first purpose-built structures, and the emergence of tragedy and comedy as the two main genres for dramatic performances. With myths as the narrative basis for tragedy, an ancient Greek audience was familiar with the plot beforehand and the interest lay in the manner of the playwright’s handling of the known story.

The pioneer of Greek tragedy is believed to be Thespis (6C BC); three great names, however, were to dominate in the following century: Aeschylus (525–455 BC), whose life coincided with the rise to greatness of Athens, focused on the frailties of men and gods alike as his main theme; Sophocles (497–406 BC), who lived at the time of Athenian pre-eminence, dwelt upon the notion of humanity and the liberty of man; and Euripides (480–406 BC), who looked beyond a society dominated by deities, produced an oeuvre characterised by psychological and ideological issues.

In the field of comedy, Aristophanes (445–386 BC) was a wry observer of politics and society, who did not hesitate to combine vulgarity and farce with serious sociological and political comment. The deaths of Sophocles and Euripides in 404 BC and the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War led to the decline of great AthenianIn drama. In the late 4C BC, Lysander (342–293 BC) produced comical works which blended intrigue with sentimentality.


As tragedy was to treat the happenings of the past from a dramatic perspective, so history was to attempt to record bygone events factually. The pioneer historians of the 5C BC worked to transcribe the mythical past and bear witness for future generations.

Herodotus (mid-5C BC) is generally acknowledged to be the first historian. He was born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor at a time when the city was ruled by the Persians. An avid traveller (to the Greek mianland, Egypt and Scythia), he gathered vast amounts of information on his journeys for his work on the history of the Persian War. Unlike previous storytellers, Herodotus tired to explain historical change.

Thucydides , a few years younger than Herodotus, produced a history of the Peloponnesian War; this relied on analytical methods (notably eyewitness accounts) explained by the author at the beginning of the work, which have a remarkable modernity. Thucydides was an Athenian and, unlike Herodotus, avoids myth and digressions in his single-minded pursuit of the cause and course of the war between his native city and Sparta.

In the 4C BC Xenophon , a pupil of Socrates, produced historical works which were narrative rather than analytical in style. He completed the history of the Peloponnesian War which Thucydides , whose work breaks off in the middle of a sentence, was not able to complete before he died in 404 BC.


Tracing its origins to Greek cities in Asia Minor in the 6C, philosophy (a Greek word literally meaning ‘love of wisdom’) sought to explain the mysteries of the universe without resort to myth. The earliest philosophers were active at Miletus in Asia Minor: among them was Thales (active around 560 BC), who looked for general principles governing the cosmos. The Greek-Italian philosopher Parmenides (around 515–445 BC) introduced another revolutionary idea with the theory that the ultimate source of reality lay outside the material world.

Pythagoras , a Greek philosopher whose writings have not survived, worked in the late 6C BC and pioneered the study of mathematics. Today he is probably best remembered through the theorem named after his discovery that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right angle triangle is equal tothe sum of the squares of the other two sides. Pythagoras was born on Samos but emigrated to southern Italy and it was there that his reputation was established among a group of his followers.

It was with Socrates (470–399 BC) that philosophy began to make its mark; he endeavoured to lay bare the falsehoods distorting public opinion, refute the claims of politicians and reveal their ignorance. He left no written documentary evidence, but his pupil Plato (428–347 BC) ensured that his ideas would survive and thrive.

Plato remains a hugely important figure in philosophy. A citizen of Athens, he founded the world’s first institution of higher learning with his Academy. Plato’s theory of eternal Forms, underlying the world of appearance, was of tremendous consequence for Western philosophy. After the execution of Socrates following his trial for subversion in Athens, Plato fled the city in fear of his own life. He travelled to Greek colonies in the south of Italy and Sicily, returning to Athens around 360 BC. These were the years of his Academy and his most brilliant student there was Aristotle.

Aristotle (384–322 BC) was Plato’s pupil but his pragmatic ideas represented a departure, drawing their inspiration from reality rather than abstract concepts. He distinguished between the different disciplines, identifying logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics and physics in their own right.

Men like Thales and Pythagoras are seen as the fathers of mathematics, but their achievements also included discoveries in astronomy and physics. Other philosophers also made great discoveries, such as Hippocrates (c.460–377 BC), whose work in the field of medicine was to remain the backbone of the subject until the Middle Ages.

Numerous philosophical schools were active between the 4C and 2C BC: the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Cynics and the Sceptics. Philosophy’s basic tenet, which was the nature of the individual, was in contrast to the traditional social structure of the city state and served to hasten its demise.

Twilight of Hellenism

The intellectual life of Greece fascinated the Romans, who drew upon it for inspiration in many spheres. History became increasingly recognised and respected with the work of Polybius (c.207–130 BC), Diodorus and most notably Plutarch (46 BC–AD 125). Geography was developed as a subject by Strabo (64 BC–c.AD 22), and subsequently Pausanias (2C AD), whose work includes the earliest travel guides. Finally, it is worth noting that the Evangelists spread the Christian gospel in the Greek language.

Literature and Language

Although the Greek language has been spoken without interruption through the ages, it has undergone changes to adapt to the times.

Linguistic changes

Throughout the Ottoman period, the patriarchate preserved a formal Greek speech which was used by the elite, while the majority of the population spoke various dialects. Dimitrios Katardzis (1730–1807) was the first public figure to propose a policy of teaching and promoting a correct form of the language to the general population. Subsequently Adamántios Koraïs (1748–1833) adopted a simple and sober form of the educated language ( katharévoussa ), enriched it and brought it up to date. This was used as the official language, appearing in administrative documents, the press, and in schools. The language used by the ordinary people, known as demotic, remained unchanged by these developments. After the Second World War, the socialist press began to print their newspapers in demotic Greek as a reaction against the bourgeois sentiments of other papers. In 1974, demotic Greek was recognised as the official language of the country, although certain official documents still employ the formal style. Thus the law followed the lead of the country’s authors, who for many years had written their books in the language of the people.

A literary Renaissance

The Ionian School

In the Ionian Islands, the Greek uprising inspired the first neo-Hellenic poetry. Originally from Zakynthos, Andréas Kálvos (1792–1867) holds an important place in the history of Greek literature because of his publication of 20 odes in two volumes in Geneva and Paris in Greek and French: La Lyre (1824) and Odes Nouvelles (1826). The leader of this ‘Ionian School’ was another native of Zakynthos, Dionysios Solomós (1798–1857); he blended romantic feelings with Classical rigour. Part of his Hymn to Liberty , translated into English by Rudyard Kipling, is now the Greek national anthem.

The romanticism of the Athens School and contemporary movements

As Europe’s intellectuals encouraged the Greek uprising, so Greece’s authors drew upon foreign works for their inspiration: The Prince of Morea (1850) by Rangravis, for example, shows the influence of Sir Walter Scott. The unbridled romanticism of the Athens School is characterised by a reactionary chauvinism mixed with foreign influences from writers such as Musset and Byron.

The memoirs of Yannis Makriyannis (1797–1864), a peasant who took up arms to fight for liberation from the Ottomans, provide an insight into the realities of the struggle of ordinary people against the occupiers, and have an essential humanity untainted by preoccupation with stylistic issues.

Another important figure in 19C Greek literature is Emmanuel Roidis (1836–1904), author of Pope Jean (1866), a stylishly satirical work which defied the romantic status quo.

Poetry and prose


As a reaction to the often mediocre realism of the Romantics, Symbolism became popular. A pioneer of the new style was Ioánnis Papadiamantópoulos (1856–1910), who wrote in the French language under the pseudonym Jean Moréas ; a classic Symbolist poet/author, his themes were vanity, glory, solitude and old age. On the margins of the symbolist movement was Constantine Caváfy (1863–1933), an educated though private man, who was born in Alexandria in 1863, spent seven years in England in his youth and returned to Alexandria in 1885. His widely translated verse reflects two worlds: contemporary Alexandria and Ancient Greece.

Geórgios Seféris (1900–71), influenced by Symbolism, expressed his anguish in confronting existence with poems imbued with an evocative power. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963. Odysséus Elýtis (1911–96) reveals through his surrealist poetry the sacred feeling Greeks have for their natural environment: the land, the sea and above all the light. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979.


John Psichári (1854–1929), who lived in Paris for many years, contributed to the pre-eminence of the demotic language in Greek literature and also wrote several novels. Geórgios Vizyinós (1849–96) was one of the first writers to launch out into new fields. Most of his themes are connected with Thrace, his birthplace, and with the study of contemporary manners. Initially he published collections of poetry ( My Mother’s Sins and other stories available in English).

Aléxandros Papadiamántis (1851–1911) was one of the great classical writers of Greek prose. His novels describe the humble and often tragic lives of fishermen and peasants in elegant but comprehensible language ( The Murderers is translated into English). Constantinos Theotókis (1872–1923) was influenced by the great Russian novelists. He devoted himself to Greek politics. Most of his works, some of which appear in English, have a social orientation and some are very touching.

Outstanding writers translated into English include Iánnis Skaribas (1893–1984), who wrote several works including a bitter and amusing novel set in the 1930s. Ángelos Terzákis (1907–61) took part in the war of 1940 and wrote about his experience in some of his short stories, especially in the collection entitled April .

Vassilis Vassilikos (b.1934) deserves a mention; his screenplay for the film Z won a Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. In 2008 Vasilis Vasilikos was one of a group of Greek intellectuals who condemned the withdrawal of a novel by Ersi Sotiropoulou , Zig-zag Through the Bitter-Orange Trees ,from Greek school libraries on account of its alledged indecency. The book is available in English and is an imaginative work of fiction that deserves to be better known..


Gods who mixed with men, watching over them, sharing their feelings, their sorrows as well as joys; such are the divinities who inhabited the Greek pantheon. This interweaving of mortal and immortal forms the inspiration for the religion of Ancient Greece.

What the modern world understands as Classical religion involved a series of rituals performed in specific locations or in private involving persons of status. These well-defined rites commemorated divinities or heroes whose exploits form a complex and remarkable web which we call mythology . Originally a purely oral tradition, this series of tales came to be recorded in writing, starting with Hesiod’s Theogony .

The Pantheon of Gods

Unlike biblical tradition, which presupposes a god outside and above the world, the Greek creation myth involves a separation of primitive forces from which the gods were born.

From Chaos , a chasm of darkness, emerged Gaia , the earth, mother of all, and then Eros. To the Greeks, Chaos was neuter, Gaia feminine, and Eros masculine; between them, they constituted the three primitive forces. Also to emerge from Chaos were Erebe, total darkness, and Nyx, the night, who begat Ether, light, and Hemera, the day. Gaia then begat Ouranos, the sky, and Pontos, the oceans. Ouranos and Gaia went on to have numerous offspring, including Kronos and Rhea who were parents to the principal Olympian gods and goddesses.

Zeus is the king of the Olympian divinities; his name appears on Linear B tablets dating back to 1400 BC. A weather god originally, Zeus dispatches thunder-storms against his enemies and is often depicted hurling a thunderbolt. Hera is his wife and sister, independent in spirit but jealous of her husband’s philandering and capable of exacting cruel vengeance against women who catch his eye. Demeter is the goddess of fertility and grain and she had a daughter with Zeus who in myth became assimilated with Persephone who was carried to the Underworld by the god Hermes and made his wife. Desperately seeking her daughter, Demeter let the earth go barren until Zeus decreed that her daughter be allowed to return. However, because Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld, she was obligated to Hades and had to spend a part of every year with him (the four hot months of the Greek summer when the soil is unproductive). Poseidon is another one of the more important gods, governing the sea and as patron of seafarers had temples devoted to him in coastal regions of Greece. Poseidon, often portrayed in myth as rather brutish, was the lover of Medusa, a winged monster with hair of snakes and a face capable of turning men to stone who gazed on it. His mistress was Scylla, turned into a ferocious sea monster by a jealous rival for the attention of the sea god. Very different to Poseidon is the goddess Athena , patron of the city of Athens, born from the head of Zeus with the help of the smith god Hephaestus . Athena was worshipped in Sparta and other cities but her principal temple was the Parthenon in Athens. The goddess of wisdom and disciplined warfare, her orderly nature is opposed to the bloodthirsty Ares who is the god of murderous war.

The gods and goddesses lived in majesty on Mount Olympos hidden in the clouds with Zeus the thunderer at their head. There was also a host of lesser divinities: local gods, Egyptian and Syrian gods, demi-gods born of the love affairs between the greater gods and mere mortals, and heroes; they all peopled an ever-growing pantheon where divinities from the Creto-Mycenaean period gradually became confused with the great gods whose cult was reduced to catering for special needs.


Religious celebrations took various forms depending on the purpose of the ceremony, which could be adjusted for individual circumstances and used for initiation. The complex mysteries which made use of symbolic objects such as representations of sexual organs were supposed to bring eternal salvation and ensure an afterlife; the most famous were performed at Eleusis (Elefsína). Another purpose of the ceremonies was to foretell future events, and so the faithful also came to consult the oracles , replies which the gods sent through the medium of the priests. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi (Delfí) is famous for the predictions made there by the Pythia . The rites could, of course, involve the whole community, and the most important ceremonies took place on the occasion of particular festivals. They were accompanied by activities which for us today have no connection with religion, such as poetry competitions or games and sporting events. The athletic and horse-riding competitions also had an aspect of initiation, since the winner (for example at the Panhellenic Games held annually at Olympia) received a sacred olive branch brought by Herakles (Hercules). The cult of Dionysos was accompanied by choruses, originally not written down, which are considered to have been the origin of all forms of theatre, whether tragedy, comedy or satire (the Satyrs were the companions of Dionysos). The prayers were usually accompanied by an offering: libations of milk or wine, and cakes and fruit placed before the altar. In return for a favour from the god a commemorative stele or a small votive statue would sometimes be promised. For a more important request animal sacrifice was used, part of which was burnt on the altar and the rest divided between the priests and the faithful. There were also purification rites with the purpose of cleansing the persons or objects considered impure by sprinkling them with water.

The temple (hieron) , dedicated to the god or goddess, stood within a sacred precinct (témenos) which was entered by a grand gateway (propylaia). Purified with consecrated water, the worshippers entered the precinct and proceeded along the sacred way past the treasuries, small buildings for the reception of offerings, the semicircular bench seats (exedra) and the votive offerings (inscriptions, statues) which also surrounded the temple. The altar, where the libations were poured and the animals were sacrificed, stood in the open in front of the temple. After the sacrifice the people entered the temple vestibule to see the statue of the divinity through the open door of the inner chamber ( naos ).

Byzantine Orthodox Church

Actively involved in state politics, eastern Christianity evolved through numerous heresies and schism with Catholicism into Orthodoxy, strictly interpreting the teachings of the Gospels. Close to the ordinary people, it is ever present in the landscape through its countless churches and monasteries. Fundamental to the faith is the cult of images and relics; the domes of its churches have since the earliest times been decorated with beautiful mosaic work by anonymous artists seeking to glorify God.

Heresy, schism and reconciliation

It is impossible to dissociate the Hellenisation of the Eastern Empire and its conversion to Christianity. Just as Hellenism was gaining ground, the Christian religion was spreading throughout the territory. In the early days of Christianity, its adherents were only united on a few articles of faith and worship. Its evolution was marked by the gradual growth of an internal hierarchy with the creation of bishops and archbishops. When in 380 Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official religion and outlawed pagan cults, his intention was to consolidate the temporal structure of the empire by insisting on its spiritual unity. But the distance between Rome , the religious capital and Constantinople, the political capital, made communication between the emperor and the head of the Church difficult. So Constantinople was raised to the status of metropolis, the same title as Rome, by a Council of 381, a decision confirmed and reinforced by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which gave Constantinople primacy throughout the east. Although the link between the emperor and the patriarchate in Constantinople and the dependence of the one on the other was confirmed, the Church of Rome maintained its supremacy over ever more vast territories beyond the control of the eastern emperor and insisted ever more firmly on its divine right to rule, inherited from its first bishop, St Peter.

Differences of interpretation between the two Churches also came to the surface. In addition, numerous heretical sects were popular: Arianism followed the tenets laid down by the early-4C Alexandrian bishop Arius (Christ’s divinity was secondary to that of God); the Nestorians adhered to the teachings of the 5C bishop Nestorius (Christ was simply a man, not God made man); the Monophysites (5C–6C), on the other hand, emphasised Christ’s divinity rather than humanity. All these sects were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and again at the Council of Chalcedon 20 years later, but their influence remained strong in some regions of the empire. More important was the issue of iconoclasm , promoted by Emperor Leo III from 726 with the aim of bringing the eastern peoples back into the Orthodox fold; this required the destruction of all images (icons and other representations of the godhead). The long internal conflict resulting from this prohibition also aggravated the divisions between the eastern and western churches. Iconoclasm was finally abandoned in 843, and icons have remained a prominent feature of Orthodox worship to this day.

In the temporal sphere, the crowning of Charlemagne as emperor of the west by the Pope in 800 made him a usurper in the eyes of the Byzantines, who regarded their emperor as the sole legitimate heir to the Roman Empire. In the religious field the main subject of dispute was the Filioque issue (the use in prayer of the doctrine that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son). Despite many attempts to restore unity, a gulf gradually opened up between east and west, between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The final break came in 1054 when the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and Pope Leo IX excommunicated one another.

The Crusades brought to Greece Roman Catholic monks, especially Cistercians , whose task it was to work towards oecumenism (‘union’). At the same time, the critical situation in which the empire found itself meant it had to seek a rapprochement with Rome, already indispensable in view of the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. The plan was to take on more concrete form with the Council of Lyon (1274), held by Pope Gregory X in the presence of the Latin Emperor Baldwin II de Courtenay and the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Paleologos, who accepted the conditions laid down by Rome. The plan failed because of the opposition of the populations involved.

A second attempt to achieve oecumenism in Greece was made in 1438 at the Council of Florence , which brought together Pope Eugenius IV, the Emperor John VIII Paleologos, Cardinal Bessarion and the philosopher Gemistos Plethon. After agreement had been reached on the Filioque clause, the condition of dead souls, the primacy of the Pope and the freedom of liturgical practices, the act of union was signed by the majority of the Orthodox priests present, but this propitious project was wrecked by the Turkish invasion of Greece in 1461.

Monastic prestige

The strictly hierarchical eastern clergy had at its head the patriarch, chosen by the emperor from a list of three candidates put forward by the Synod, composed of senior clergy drawn from the aristocracy. The position was as important as that of any of the great offices of State. At the other extreme, the local clergy, usually peasant-priests, performed an administrative role in the villages of the empire. Their role was more functional than spiritual. The ordinary population, whose zeal focused on images and relics, looked to the monastic communities for religious guidance.

The earliest monks were hermits who sought out the isolation of desert life. It was St Pacomas who developed a new means of withdrawal from society by bringing together communities of monks to live in monasteries. Geographically, visually and spiritually, monasticism came to occupy centre stage in Greek life. The monk was cast in the role of holy man, whose wisdom was in demand as much for practical advice as for religious guidance. Unsurprisingly, the tombs of exceptional examples of such figures became local sites of pilgrimage, often marked by the construction of a church or monastery. Every detail of their lives was perpetuated through oral tradition, thereby creating characters of legendary status, and their relics were invested with miraculous powers.

As with icons, relics were perceived to be sacred and became objects of unparalleled veneration. Around such items grew up cult places of worship which made the monasteries rich, incurring the resentment of the temporal authorities who realised, however, that relics, unlike icons, could not be banned.

Church domes and the apogee of mosaics

The confluence of Roman civilisation and the traditions of Asia Minor give rise to a distinctive Byzantine style most clearly expressed in religious architecture. Certain features are ubiquitous, such as the centralised plan and the dome decorated to resemble the heavens (the ability to construct domes on rectangular structures was the great architectural triumph of the age).

Inheriting the layout of Classical buildings, early Christian churches (5C–6C) were preceded by an atrium. The design was either a basilica (a nave and two aisles), or on a Greek cross layout, with an imposing dome at the centre and galleries for women worshippers. Only the ruins of such churches remain in Greece (at Philippi, Lechaion in Corinth, and Thessaloníki).

A second golden age of architecture (9C–12C) saw the construction of many more churches, often small in scale but of perfect proportions, built to a cross-in-square design, most striking when viewed from the exterior. These buildings, usually entered through a narthex, have domes resting on drums to give them greater height, and are decorated with low-relief carvings, marble and mosaic work. Fine examples may be seen at Daphne, Óssios Loukás in Boeotia, Néa Moní on Chios and Agía Sophía in Monemvassía.

Renaissance under the Palaeologues (13C–16C)

More elaborate schemes combining basilica and Greek cross characteristics, multiple domes and increased fresco decoration were the features of this period, as can be seen in the churches of Thessaloníki (Holy Apostles, St Catherine’s), Árta, Kastoriá and Mystra.

Churches were ornately decorated with polychrome marble pavements, frescoes (13C onwards), and mosaics which used gold and warm colours to capture the imagination of the viewer. The subject matter was strictly defined by religious dogma: in the dome, Christ Pantocrator (the Creator) surrounded by archangels, Apostles and Evangelists; the Virgin Theotokos (Mother of God) or Galactophroussa (Suckling the Christ Child) between the archangels Michael and Gabriel in the apse; scenes from the life of Christ or the Virgin, usually following the sequence of feast days rather than chronological order. Some of the finest Byzantine mosaics may be observed in the monasteries of Daphne, Néa Moní on Chios and Óssios Loukás.

Alongside these dazzling works of art, the tradition of icon painting and its significance to the eastern Christian tradition must be considered. Painted on wood, these images are displayed in churches on the iconostasis, the screen dividing the nave from the sanctuary, but are equally common in private homes. Objects of veneration once accused of bordering on the idolatrous, their purpose was confirmed by the Council of Nicea in 787 (“God the Son is the living icon of God the Father”).

Among the commonest subjects of icon painting are the Hetoimasia, depicting an empty throne from which God will oversee the Last Judgement, the descent of Christ into Limbo, the Dormition of the Virgin, and the three angels dining at Abraham’s table. The archangels Michael and Gabriel are often depicted at the head of celestial armies; the most venerated saints are the hierarchs or Doctors of the Church, namely John Chrysostom, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. Other popular saints include John the Baptist (known as Prodomos, the forerunner), George (depicted slaying the dragon), Andrew of Patras, Demetrios of Thessaloníki, Michael, Nicholas, Athanasios, Cyril and Pantaleon, the two Theodores, Cosmas and Damian, and Pantaleon and Hermolaos who were known as the ‘penniless saints’ as they practised medicine without charging fees.


Contemporary Greek culture has had only limited impact abroad. Although certain actors and directors have become international names, Greek film remains firmly on the art-cinema circuit rather than in the mainstream.

The theme of many of the films made between 1946 and 1949 was wartime resistance, but as they were divorced from their social context they lack objective comment. There were also several comedies, the most daring being The Germans are Back by Alekos Sakellarios , which pleaded for national unity at a time when the government was actively anti-Communist.

The scenario used the return of the Germans to promote reconciliation among the divided Greeks.

The dominant influence during the 1950s was Italian neo-realism . In 1953 Mihális Kakoiánnis made Sunday Awakening , a neo-realist comedy, the first of many remarkable films including Stella (1955), Electra (1961), Zorba the Greek (1964), The Trojans (1971), and Iphigenia (1977). Around the same time Magic City and Serial Killer (1956) appeared, masterpieces by the Cretan film-maker Níkos Koúndouros .

In the 1970s Greek cinema reflected a social and political approach. Theo Angelópoulos produced a historical trilogy covering 1936 to 1977, followed by Alexander the Great (1980) which won awards in Venice, Voyage to Kythera (1984), which won the prize for best scenario at the Cannes Festival in 1984, The Bee - keeper (1986) and Foggy Landscape (1988), which won nine international prizes. More recently he made The Glance of Odysseus (1995), for which he won the Grand Prix at the Cannes festival. He was awarded the Palme d’Or in 1998 for Eternity and a Day , a deeply moving meditation on the passage of time, opportunities missed and vanished hopes.

The most successful and popular film of recent years is A Touch of Spice (2003), a bitter-sweet tale about life for the Greek minority community in Istanbul. Some 30,000 Greeks left Istanbul – deported might be more accurate – in 1964 and the family of the film’s director, Tassos Boulmetis, was one of those uprooted from the city. The film boldly confronts the prejudices of both Greeks and Turks in a spirit of reconciliation and touched a chord with Greek audiences who flocked to see it in preference to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Since A Touch of Spice there has been a lively resurgence in Greek cinema. Nyfes (Brides) came out in 2004, directed by Pantelis Voulgaris and starring Victoria Haralabidou and Damian Lewis. The story is about a mail order bride in the 1920s who falls in love with an American photographer while on her way to her arranged marriage in Chicago. Loafing and Camouflage: Sirens in the Aegean (2005), about a group of Greek soldiers assigned to the island of Kos to guard a small rock island against an alleged invasion from Turkish troops, handles a sensitive topic with humour and good grace.

Music and dance

Popular music is played at festivals and other ceremonies (weddings and funerals), in the cafés and squares. On these occasions the traditional instruments are used: the bouzoúki , a sort of lute with a very long neck, three or four pairs of strings, and a shrill tone imported from Asia Minor, the baglamás , which is a small bouzoúki, the Cretan lyre ( lyra ), a three-stringed viol played with a bow, the sandoúri , which is played by striking its steel strings with small hammers, and the Epirot clarinet . There are also various rustic wind instruments, such as the floiéra , a transverse flute from Epirus, the dzamára , a straight pipe, and the pipiza , a kind of high-pitched oboe.

These instruments accompany singers, whose plaintive style owes much to oriental music: the kléftikos attributed to the klephts in the War of Independence and the famous rebétika dramatic accounts of the terrible conditions in the urban slums or the search for an impossible love. The greatest exponent of rebétika was Vassilis Tsitsanis (1915–84), who succeeded in transcribing them in a very pure form.

After 1945 Greek music was radically changed. Composers turned to the traditional forms for rhythm and melody and began to take an interest in rebétika. The leading lights in this musical renewal, who had different techniques but both exhibited the same attachment to popular Greek music, were Mános Hatzidákis (1925–94) – romantic, lyrical and elegant (5 laîkos zografies, O megálos eroticós, I epochi tis Melissanthis) – and Míkis Theodorákis , with his passion for social problems ( Axion Esti , a setting of extensive extracts from the verse work of this name by Odysséas Elítis , Romiosini, Canto General, film music for Zorba the Greek and Z ).

In mentioning this folk-inspired music, we must not forget that several composers working in a more experimental vein also did much to put Greek music on the map, notably Níkos Skalkóttas (1904–49) and Ioánnis Xenákis (b.1922).

Some dances are of oriental origin such as the zembétiko , improvised by a man on his own, or the hassápiko , the butchers’ dance, performed by men who lay their hands on one another’s shoulders. Others such as the Cretan pendozáli imitate war; a clarinet accompanies the mirológia , funeral dances and dirges, often improvised and danced in turn to the point of exhaustion by the women taking part in the wake (Máni and Crete). The national dance, kalamatianós , is danced in a ring and recalls the sacrifice of the Souliot women. The lively sirtáki devised for the film Zorba the Greek is aimed more at tourists (its name was even invented outside Greece); it was based on the hassápiko . The list would not be complete without the anastenária , a dance with a constantly accelerating rhythm performed in Macedonia and Thrace in May on St Constantine’s Day, in which the dancers achieve a trance-like state.

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