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Greece: The Classical Period

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 8 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
Greece Classical Period Architecture

Greece has always been a powerful attraction to conquerors or visitors alike who remained captivated by her geographical charm and her claim to being one of the oldest civilisations in the western world.

Often Copied Never Bettered

Greek architecture, during what is called the classical period, has often been the model for imitations; copied throughout antiquity right until the 20th century throughout Europe, North America, and the British Empire.

Archaeology has contributed much to the rediscovery and reconstruction of the Grecian classical period not least in excavations of some of the finest architectural sites.

From the Games to the Romans

The height of the classical Greek period lasted for about five hundred years. Historians traditionally start the period with the date of the first recorded Greek Olympic Games in 776 BC, although it is not uncommon for the period to be stretched back to include 1000 BC. The date for its conclusion is more easily measured and is ascribed to coincide with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.

Whatever exact dates are used, chronology is clear about the three main divisions in ancient Grecian history where the classical period falls between the period of Ancient Greece, otherwise known as its Dark Ages, and the Hellenistic period that witnessed the emergence of the Roman Empire across Grecian culture.

The Foundation of Western Culture

The classical period is universally considered the birthplace and foundational cultural heritage of all western civilisations. The classical culture of the Greek was so powerful an influence that even the mighty Roman Empire could only permit it to be assimilated and its persuasive aesthetics enchanted Rome to carry it throughout all of the Empire.

Dominance of Athens

The Athenians were masters of the sea and through their mighty naval power dominated the known world, leading it in commerce. By the middle of the 5th century BC Athens was the recognised capital of the Greek Empire and seat of the treasury.

The massive wealth of the capital drew talented people and intellectuals from all over the Greek-speaking world. Wealth, coupled with slavery, created a leisure class of artistic patrons. Athenians sponsored the arts and cultures, education, and particularly fine architecture. Building, during this period, was focussed on grand public structures such as monuments to Caesars and nobility, massive theatres for plays, stadiums for competitive games, temples to gods, and public market places.

A Renaissance of Knowledge

It was a European period of unprecedented knowledge. Most of the famous Greek philosophers herald from this period such as Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. Philosophy (the love of wisdom) was at the cornerstone of every classical enterprise from literature to the arts.

Classical Greece and Archaeology

This period hosts a treasure box of delights for the archaeologist and there is likely to be no other period in human history, save that of Pharaohic Egypt, which has attracted so much archaeological attention.

Modern archaeologists are much diverted in specialised archaeological pursuits, and this spread of diversity shows no recession in the study of classical Greece. However, without doubt the glory of the classics must be its architecture and to this cause archaeology has given us much.

There are many archaeological sites still under investigation by excavation teams from all over the world. Yet Athens, as the classical capital, plays host to the most glorious of the archaeological sites.

The Acropolis

On a steep rocky hilltop, shrouded with green foliage at its foot, stands the greatest of the acropolises. This monumental, artistic, masterpiece sits on the site formerly occupied by a Mycenaean palace. There are other acropolises across Greece but so splendid is this one at Athens that it is generally referred to as ‘The’ Acropolis.

The Parthenon

This supreme structure was built entirely in marble. It is unsurpassed by any other Greek architecture. Like the Acropolis at Athens, the Parthenon is also located on a former building platform, this time a temple. It has survived the rampages of religious enthusiasm, earth’s shuddering wrath, and even a semi-suicidal attempt when, as used for the storage of gunpowder in the 17th century, a cannonball ignited her charge and blasted out the southern wing.

The Odeon

The Odeon in Athens is a theatre complex donated by a local orator in 161 BC, during the Hellenistic period. This theatre, in ancient times, was a grand concert hall for the Athenian orchestra and a stage for action plays. Although falling just outside of the classical period it is worthy of note as it suggests the climax of the artistic movement that the classical period introduced. Many modern picture theatres are named after this form of architecture.


Although Olympia is some distance from Athens it must be included in any commentary of the classical period as it is here in this city that the first Olympic Games were staged. Zeus was the Greek King of gods and as lord of Mt Olympus his association with the Games was evident. A 12m high statue of Zeus was erected in Olympia with his symbols of authority, the bull, eagle, oak, and thunderbolt.

The Greeks, during this ancient period of renaissance, adhered to religion, tradition, and their exacting identity. For all of this they were unable to bring about a unified form of lasting government. Only Rome, at the close of the classical period could forge a unity of cultures into one great Empire.

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