Greek Religion, Philosophical Tradition, and Sculpture

Greek Religion

In the ancient Greek world, religion was personal, direct, and present in all areas of life. With formal rituals which included animal sacrifices and libations, myths to explain the origins of mankind and give the gods a human face, temples which dominated the urban landscape, city festivals and national sporting and artistic competitions, religion was never far from the mind of an ancient Greek. Whilst the individual may have made up their own mind on the degree of their religious belief and some may have been completely skeptical, certain fundamentals must have been sufficiently widespread in order for Greek government and society to function: the gods existed, they could influence human affairs, and they welcomed and responded to acts of piety and worship. (51)

The Greek Gods

Polytheistic Greek religion encompassed a myriad of gods, each representing a certain facet of the human condition, and even abstract ideas such as justice and wisdom could have their own personification. The most important gods, though, were the Olympian gods led by Zeus. These were Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Hera, Aphrodite, Demeter, Ares, Artemis, Hades, Hephaistos, and Dionysos. These gods were believed to reside on Mt. Olympos and would have been recognized across Greece, albeit, with some local variations and perhaps particular attributes and associations.

In the Greek imagination, literature, and art, the gods were given human bodies and characters — both good and bad — and just as ordinary men and women, they married, had children (often through illicit affairs), fought, and in the stories of Greek mythology they directly intervened in human affairs. These traditions were first recounted only orally as there was no sacred text in Greek religion and later, attempts were made to put in writing this oral tradition, notably by Hesiod in his Theogony and more indirectly in the works of Homer.

Gods became patrons of cities, for example, Aphrodite for Corinth and Helios for Rhodes, and were called upon for help in particular situations, for example, Ares during war and Hera for weddings. Some gods were imported from abroad, for example, Adonis, and incorporated into the Greek pantheon whilst rivers and springs could take on a very localized personified form such as the nymphs. (51)

The Greek Philosophical Tradition

The Pre-Socratic Philosophical Tradition

The Pre-Socratic philosophers, following Thales’ lead, initiated what would become the scientific method in exploring natural phenomena. The first group of Greek philosophers is a triad of Milesian thinkers: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Their main concern was to come up with a cosmological theory purely based on natural phenomena. Their approach required the rejection of all traditional explanations based on religious authority, dogma, myth and superstition. They all agreed on the notion that all things come from a single “primal substance”: Thales believed it was water; Anaximander said it was a substance different from all other known substances, “infinite, eternal and ageless”; and Anaximenes claimed it was air.

Observation was also important among the Milesian school. Thales predicted an eclipse which took place in 585 BCE and it seems he had been able to calculate the distance of a ship at sea from observations taken at two points. Anaximander, based on the fact that human infants are helpless at birth, argued that if the first human had somehow appeared on earth as an infant, it would not have survived: therefore, humans have evolved from other animals whose offspring are fitter. (52)

The Sophist Philosophical Tradition

The Sophists were intellectuals who taught courses in various topics, including rhetoric, a useful skill in Athens. Because they taught in return for a fee, the Sophists’ schools were only attended by those who could afford it, usually members of the aristocracy and wealthy families. This was a time of profound political and social change in Athens: democracy had replaced the old way of doing politics and many aristocrats whose interests were affected were trying to destroy the democracy; the rapid increase of wealth and culture, mainly due to foreign commerce, undermined traditional beliefs and morals. In a way, the Sophists represented the new political era in Athenian life, especially because they were linked with the new educational needs. (52)


Socrates, born in Athens in the 5 th century BCE, marks a watershed in ancient Greek philosophy. Athens was a center of learning, with sophists and philosophers traveling from across Greece to teach rhetoric, astronomy, cosmology, geometry, and the like. The great statesman Pericles was closely associated with these new teachings, however, and his political opponents struck at him by taking advantage of a conservative reaction against the philosophers. It became a crime to investigate issues above the heavens or below the earth because they were considered impious. While other philosophers, such as Anaxagoras, were forced to flee Athens, Socrates was the only documented individual charged under this law, convicted, and sentenced to death in 399 BCE. In the version of his defense speech presented by Plato, he claims that the envy others experience on account of his being a philosopher is what will lead to his conviction.

Painting by Jacques-Louis David called The Death of Socrates. In this depiction, a white-robed Socrates sits on a bed reaching for a cup of hemlock, prepared to die while his students stand in distress around him.
Figure 4-13: The Death of Socrates from Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931 is licensed under Public Domain

Many conversations involving Socrates (as recounted by Plato and Xenophon) end without having reached a firm conclusion, a style known as aporia . Socrates is said to have pursued this probing question-and-answer style of examination on a number of topics, usually attempting to arrive at a defensible and attractive definition of a virtue. While Socrates’ recorded conversations rarely provide a definitive answer to the question under examination, several maxims or paradoxes for which he has become known recur. Socrates taught that no one desires what is bad, and so if anyone does something that truly is bad, it must be unwillingly or out of ignorance; consequently, all virtue is knowledge. He frequently remarks on his own ignorance (claiming that he does not know what courage is, for example). Plato presents Socrates as distinguishing himself from the common run of mankind by the fact that, while they know nothing noble and good, they do not know that they do not know, whereas Socrates knows and acknowledges that he knows nothing noble and good.

Socrates was morally, intellectually, and politically at odds with many of his fellow Athenians. When he was on trial, he used his method of elenchos , a dialectic method of inquiry that resembles the scientific method , to demonstrate to the jurors that their moral values are wrong-headed. He tells them they are concerned with their families, careers, and political responsibilities when they ought to be worried about the “welfare of their souls.” Socrates’ assertion that the gods had singled him out as a divine emissary seemed to provoke irritation, if not outright ridicule. Socrates also questioned the Sophistic doctrine that arete (virtue) can be taught. He liked to observe that successful fathers (such as the prominent military general Pericles) did not produce sons of their own quality. Socrates argued that moral excellence was more a matter of divine bequest than parental nurture. (53)


Plato was an Athenian of the generation after Socrates. Ancient tradition ascribes 36 dialogues and 13 letters to him, although of these only 24 of the dialogues are now universally recognized as authentic. Most modern scholars believe that at least 28 dialogues, and two of the letters, were in fact written by Plato, although all of the 36 dialogues have some defenders. Plato’s dialogues feature Socrates, although not always as the leader of the conversation. Along with Xenophon, Plato is the primary source of information about Socrates’ life and beliefs, and it is not always easy to distinguish between the two.

Much of what is known about Plato’s doctrines is derived from what Aristotle reports about them, and many of Plato’s political doctrines are derived from Aristotle’s works, The Republic , the Laws , and the Statesman The Republic contains the suggestion that there will not be justice in cities unless they are ruled by philosopher kings; those responsible for enforcing the laws are compelled to hold their women, children, and property in common; and the individual is taught to pursue the common good through noble lies. The Republic determines that such a city is likely impossible, however, and generally assumes that philosophers would refuse to rule if the citizenry asked them to, and moreover, the citizenry would refuse to compel philosophers to rule in the first place.

“Platonism” is a term coined by scholars to refer to the intellectual consequences of denying, as Plato’s Socrates often does, the reality of the material world. In several dialogues, most notably The Republic , Socrates inverts the common man’s intuition about what is knowable and what is real. While most people take the objects of their senses to be real if anything is, Socrates is contemptuous of people who think that something has to be graspable in the hands to be real. Socrates’s idea that reality is unavailable to those who use their senses is what puts him at odds with the common man and with common sense.

Socrates says that he who sees with his eyes is blind, and this idea is most famously captured in his allegory of the cave, a paradoxical analogy wherein Socrates argues that the invisible world is the most intelligible and that the visible world is the least knowable and most obscure. In the allegory, Socrates describes a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from the fire burning behind them, and the people begin to name and describe the shadows, which are the closest images they have to reality. Socrates then explains that a philosopher is like a prisoner released from that cave who comes to understand the shadows on the wall are not reality. (53)

Classical Greek Sculpture

In the Classical period, Greek sculptors would break off the shackles of convention from the Archaic era and achieve what no-one else had ever before attempted. They created life-size and life-like sculpture which glorified the human and especially nude male form. Greater attention is paid to the facial countenance, though a stoic expression still typifies the sculpture from this era. Clothes too become more subtle in their rendering and cling to the contours of the body in what has been described as “wind-blown’ or the “wet-look’. Quite simply, the sculptures no longer seemed to be sculptures but were figures instilled with life and verve. The material of choice for early Greek sculpture was marble with the other favored material being bronze. Unfortunately, because bronze was always in demand for re-use in later periods, marble sculpture has better survived for posterity. (47)

Discobolus Lancellotti

The most famous example of the Discobolus Lancellotti that we have today, for example, is actually a marble replica of a Greek bronze produced by Myron c. 450 BCE. One of the most copied statues from antiquity and it suggests powerful muscular motion caught for a split second, as in a photo. The piece is also interesting because it is carved in such a way (in a single plain) as to be seen from one viewpoint (like a relief carving with its background removed). (47)

Image of the Discus Thrower. A marble replica of the original, the statue depicts a stoic-faced athlete in mid-rotation as he prepares to hurl the discus aloft.
Figure 4-14: Discus Thrower by Mark Cartwright is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Poseidon of Artemesium

In bronze, the Poseidon of Artemesium is a transitional piece between Archaic and Classical art as the figure is extremely life-like, but in fact the proportions are not exact (e.g. the limbs are extended). However, as Boardman eloquently describes, “(it) manages to be both vigorously threatening and static in its perfect balance”; the onlooker is left in no doubt at all that this is a great god. (47)

Bronze statue of the bearded and nude Poseidon stepping forward as if to throw a long spear or javelin.
Figure 4-15: NAMA Poséidon by Marsyas is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Close of the Classical Age

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) was fought between Athens and its empire, known as the Delian League, and the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. During this conflict, Greek warfare evolved from an originally limited and formalized form of conflict, to all-out struggles between city-states, complete with large-scale atrocities. The Peloponnesian War provided a dramatic end to the 5 th century BCE, shattering religious and cultural taboos, devastating vast swathes of countryside, and destroying whole cities.

In the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta rose as a hegemonic power in classical Greece. Sparta’s dominance was challenged by many Greek city-states who had traditionally been independent during the Corinthian War of 395-387 BCE. Sparta prevailed in the conflict, but only because Persia intervened on their behalf, demonstrating the fragility with which Sparta held its power over the other Greek city-states. Following the decline of the Greek city-states, the Greek kingdom of Macedon rose to power under Philip II. Alexander III, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was born to Philip II in Pella in 356 BCE, and succeeded his father to the throne at the age of 20. (54)(55)(56)