Hot Take: The Classical Period is Overrated

What comes to mind when you think of ancient Greek sculpture? If you picture modest goddesses and nude figures in conservative poses, you must be unfamiliar with ancient Greece’s most epic works. Let me introduce you to the sculpture of the Hellenistic Period: 

Ludovisi Gaul - Wikipedia
Various Hellenistic sculptures. Top to bottom: “Barberini Faun”, “Old Drunkard”, “The Galatian Suicide”.

Why should normalcy be adored when art like this exists? While a drunken satyr passed out with his legs spread may not be the ideal house decor, he is undeniably awesome.

Switching Things Up

The Hellenistic Period dates 323- 31 BC and is characterized by the death of Alexander the Great, the rise of the Roman empire, and the abundance of electric, unusual, and stylistically diverse sculpture. During this period, formal qualities of Classical art radically shifted from stationary and idealized to deeply expressive and naturalistic

The Classical and Hellenistic periods are divided by rich history. The expansion of Alexander the Great’s empire allowed for fluid movement of ideas and goods across many cultures, stretching from Greece to India. Likewise, the expansion of the Greek language allowed for widespread communication and understanding.

As a result, Greek tradition blended with elements of other conquered cultures and transformed artistic standards from basic to extravagant.

Greek society, long dominated by Athens, began to change. (Thanks Alexander!)

City-states were no longer governed democratically, but ruled by kings who were dedicated to gathering riches for their states. Diverse resources were imported from India, the Far East, Spain, and Babylon, among many other regions, which contributed to the wealth and development of Hellenistic states.

Cultural expansion allowed for the diversification of philosophy and social reinvention. Society became affluent and art patronage became more popular. As a result, art became a dramatic expression of wealth and luxury and got a whole lot cooler. 

This is not out of the ordinary. 

Art and political/social/religious change often move hand in hand. In ancient Egypt, rigid figures dominated art for roughly 3,000 years. As discussed by Amanda Faust, a political/religious shift was reflected in a stylistic change in Egyptian art through new stylization and iconography. In a similar fashion, Greco-Roman expansion during Alexander the Great’s campaigns created a more affluent and knowledgeable society which triggered an explosion of new artistic interests.

Let’s look at some art.

Nike of Samothrace (Winged Victory). 190 BC. Marble.
Artist’s impression of the Nike of Samothrace
One interpretation of how Nike of Samothrace may have looked restored.

Meet Nike of Samothrace. Created at the heart of the Hellenistic age, Nike is carved in marble and is a personification of the goddess of victory. Here, she commemorates a successful naval battle. She appears to be descending down from the gods during a storm, wings spread, waiting to announce victory. 

Nike is not merely a pretty face or idealized body type, as seen in Classical art. She is thought-provoking. She is individual. She blows Classical goddesses out of the water.

Nike’s chiton tunic, translucent from the ocean spray, sticks to her skin and billows over the contours of her body, offering a theatrical sense of drama and intensity. The fabric accentuates her realistic movement and flaunts the artist’s impressive precision. This quality creates an illusion that she faces the wind, further building on the story we imagine.

Nike triumphantly lurches forward in what appears to be a reinvented contrapposto pose: her body twists and responds to weight distribution, yet more energy and movement is communicated through tension in her body. This dramatic stance puts the typical “hip-pop” contrapposto pose to shame. 

Nike’s feet are planted and weight-bearing, as her upper body stretches upward, arms probably outstretched. This focus on expression, anatomy, and emotion contrasts the conservative forms of the Classical period. Instead of standing still and looking pretty, Nike is twisted, covered in fabric, and doused in water. 

Made possible by the changing attitudes and styles of the Hellenistic period, the Winged Victory breaks the boundaries of traditional Classical art and introduces us to a far more empowering and breathtaking depiction of the female goddess. 

However, Nike is still underrated. Let’s meet her competition. 

The Classical Goddess

Here is an iconic portrait of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, dating back to the Classical Period. Her posture is reserved, she looks passively off to the side, and there is a sense of coyness and vulnerability in her (basic contrapposto) pose. Although beautiful, there is no drama. Boring!

Aphrodite of Knidos. 350 BCE. Marble. Sculpted by Praxiteles.

Comparing the Winged Victory with the Aphrodite of Knidos offers telling insight into how female nudity was presented. One interpretation of the Aphrodite statue suggests that her vulnerability is erotic. Because she doesn’t want to be seen, the viewer may feel perverted for looking. Yet, as women rise in legal and social position during the Hellenistic period, the female body is presented unabashedly. Nike’s nude body stands proudly exposed and she does not appear unhappy with this. 

Who are you swiping right on? 

The choice is clear. Let’s end the Classical hype and give Nike (and Barberini Faun!) the credit she deserves.

Sarah Smith is a freshman at Colgate University. She is interested in Economics and Art History, and thinks Hellenistic sculpture is super cool.

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