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The Idea of a Classic

Any item judged to be in the highest "class" of its category may be called a "classic," which implies an excellence that will continue to endure and be recognized despite the passage of time. The term "classical" was popularized by Renaissance scholars who admired the achievements of Greece and Rome in the period that became known as the age of "classical" antiquity. Since the Romans consciously imitated and adapted Greek culture, it is relatively easy to identify the classical elements of antiquity by examining their Greek origins.

The Classical Temperament

A classical temperament, or way of looking at life, may be encountered in any place or age. Nevertheless, the art and architecture of fifth-century Athens most vividly illustrate the values often associated with classicism such as order, harmony, and balance. Greek statuary, for example, presents a vision of ideal human form that is still the standard for attractive bodily proportions. This vision was no accident. Athenian artists actively sought to create an ideal; in fact, the sculptor Polyclitus, who wrote a treatise discussing his ideas of symmetry, demonstrated them in a statue of a spear-carrier popularly referred to as the Canon (a word with many applications, as we have seen, that means "rule"). It is typical of the classical temperament to endorse a model for emulation, in effect, to set rules.

Similarly, it was not an accident that the favorite subject of Athenian sculptors was the male nude. This choice reflected both the masculine bias of Athenian society and the importance that classicism ascribes to the human sphere. Even the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthenos (or maiden), patron of the city named for her, enshrines the human model. Ostensibly, the sculptures decorating the temple depict gods, but these exquisitely observed renderings of realistic gestures and postures portray divinity in human terms.

Comparisons with the art and architecture of other civilizations of the time underline the distinctive contribution of the classical vision. For example, the Greeks learned how to construct stone monuments from the Egyptians, but their application of what they learned reveals a totally different set of priorities. Astonishing feats of engineering that pre-date Greek architecture by more than two thousand years, vast pyramids and temples were designed to awe the observers. Guarded by gigantic sculptures, these massive Egyptian tombs offered access only to pharoahs and priests. Greek architects, by contrast, used their mathematical skills to invite entry: they calculated how columns might be spaced and tapered best to please the eye and studied how high to pitch the roofs of temples that open their portals to ordinary citizens.

Set on the acropolis (from the roots acro=high and polis=city, the highest point and therefore the site of significant structures in ancient Greek cities) of Athens, the Parthenon bears witness to human art and civic community. A harmonious composition of geometrical shapes and idealized human form, the structure improves the rugged hillside. Typically faced with rocky terrain far different from the flat plains of Egypt, the Greeks leveled the ground to anchor their buildings' straight lines and geometrically precise forms. Whenever possible, the classicist aspires to mold the world into a congenial space for human action.


The Rise of Athens and the Western Tradition

Pericles (d. 429 B.C.) commissioned the buildings on the Athenian acropolis after decades of war with Persia had destroyed much of the city. The Athenian defeat of the Persians precipitated a decisive westward shift in the development of world history. A study of the beginnings of Western culture reveals how much it derived from the much older civilizations of Africa and the Near East. The Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians--neighbors, rivals, and oppressors of the Biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judea--controlled vast lands. For centuries, these nations engaged in territorial struggles against each other, and each in its own time was the superpower of the region.

In the sixth century, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, one of world history's major figures, the Persians gained control of the Near East. After conquering Babylon in 539 (returning the Jews from exile to their homeland), Cyrus annexed Egypt and North Africa. Soon afterward, the Persians, under Cyrus's successor Darius, turned toward Greece. The son of Darius, Xerxes, mounted the campaigns that devastated much of Athens. Jolted out of their traditional rivalries by this attack from the East, the Greek city-states united for a short time. Led by Athens, their small forces almost miraculously won a series of naval battles with the Persians. In time, Athens not only emerged victorious from this war, but also generated the cultural, political, and intellectual innovations that gave the Western world a distinctive set of ideas about government, philosophy, and science.

Classical Greek culture departs from that of the Eastern world in its rational approach to solving problems. During the sixth century, dissatisfied with traditional explanations of natural phenomena as the will of the gods, philosophers began to offer materialistic rather than theological accounts of the universe. This philosophical ferment started in Ionia, the region of Asia Minor where Homer presumably lived.

Pythagoras of Samos (the same man who discovered the geometrical theorem), for one, sought to define a unified mathematical principle as the root of the cosmos. Challenging the Pythagorean quest for unity was the philosopher Heraclitus. Known for his belief that the world was in a constant state of change, Heraclitus asserted that beneath this flux, a central principle of order exists. He called this principle Logos.

Although Heraclitus, who was from Ephesus, seems to have shared many of the mystical beliefs enunciated in the philosophical traditions of Asia (including some Indian and Persian notions of astronomy), by moving away from mythological explanations of natural phenomena, he helped chart the course for fifth-century Greeks and their intertwining of science and philosophy. Heraclitus's transitional position is clear in his comment that the Logos "does and does not want to be called Zeus."

In the fifth century, the growing philosophical debate about these matters moved westward to mainland Greece and centered in Athens, because intellectuals from the Greek coastal and island cities of Asia Minor emigrated to escape the chaos brought about during the extended Persian wars. The Greek embrace of reason rather than theology, emphasizing critical inquiry in place of cultic ritual, was rooted firmly in Athens by the end of the fifth century. Socrates (470-399), who was born in Athens, devoted his life to philosophical discourse in general and to the Heraclitean emphasis on self-knowledge in particular. The dialogues of Plato (c. 427-c.347) depict Socrates' constant probing of his companions' ideas about the world: until we can reasonably explain our beliefs, we cannot justify espousing them. More and more, he urged his followers to look inward and examine their own morality before they tried to master the universe around them.

Periclean Athens

Classical Athens, a small town by modern urban standards, was the first democracy (a Greek word meaning "rule of the people"). In practice, the "people" were fewer than 40,000 free adult males; slaves, women, and the allies who paid taxes to Athens had no voice in ruling the state. In 478, wary of a renewed Persian onslaught, a group of Greek city-states formed the Delian League (their commanders swore oaths of fidelity at Delos, an island sacred to Apollo). In 454, the "treasure" (or tax funds) contributed by all the member cities was transferred from Delos to Athens; with this source of income, Athens undertook its ambitious program of municipal reconstruction after negotiating peace with Persia in 449.

The Parthenon, completed in 432, symbolizes the Golden Age of Athens under the stewardship of Pericles. Yet the edifice also symbolizes Athenian misappropriation of its allies' wealth, an ironic reminder of the difficulty, even then, of living up to the classical virtues of reason and balance.

Indeed, for a few decades in the middle of the fifth century Athenian culture was supreme, but its political strength quickly began to erode. Overconfident, Athens abused its empire and lost the cooperation of the cities which had joined it in meeting the Persian threat. Challenged by the cities of the Peloponnesus, the land mass lying to the south, Athenian domination gave way. By 404, having lost the Second Peloponnesian War to its militant rival Sparta, Athens was on the wane.


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