The ancient Greeks were famous for their sculptures, which included both statues and carvings in relief*. Most sculptures either served a religious purpose or commemorated a person or event. Sculptures adorned temples, celebrated athletic and military victories, marked graves, and honored public figures. Although much of the sculpture of the ancient Greeks has been destroyed, many original works and Roman copies survive to the present. These magnificent pieces can be seen in museums throughout the world. Descriptions of sculptures in literature and in monumental inscriptions provide additional information about ancient Greek sculpture.

* relief method of sculpture in which the design is raised from the surface from which it is shaped


The earliest existing Greek sculptures, which date from about 1000 B.C., are small statues made of clay or solid bronze. Clay was molded by hand and then baked. Bronze was melted, poured into molds, and then cooled until it hardened.

Around 650 B.C. the Greeks began carving large blocks of stone. They borrowed this technique from the Egyptians, who had a long tradition of sculpting in stone. The Greeks used either marble or limestone, and they soon became highly skilled stone sculptors. Sculptors painted their statues with bright paint and coated them with wax and oil to preserve the paint and to make the work shine.

By 500 B.C. the Greeks had learned to make hollow bronze statues, which enabled them to make much larger statues in bronze. Large bronze statues were usually made in several pieces, which were then bolted together. Small details, such as locks of hair, were often made separately and then attached to the statue. Eyes were made of colored stones and held in place with bronze clips. After 400 B.C. many Greek sculptors worked with hollow bronze. Stone continued to be used but mainly for reliefs on buildings and for small sculptures commissioned by private individuals.

Although Greek sculptors mainly used stone and bronze, they also used other materials, including wood, ivory, gold, and silver. Sculptures were sometimes made of a mix of materials. For example, the trunk of a statue might have been made of wood and the arms and legs made of stone. Similarly, a marble statue might have had a helmet of bronze. Some Greek statues of important people were constructed from a combination of gold and ivory. Others were covered wholly or in part with a thin layer of gold or silver.


Although the earliest Greek sculptures date to about 1000 B.C., the first distinctively Greek style of sculpture did not appear until the beginning of the Archaic* period. For the next several centuries, Greek sculpture went through several changes in style. In general, Greek sculpture became more realistic and emotionally expressive.

Sculpture in the Archaic Period. The small clay and solid bronze statues of the early Archaic period depict animals—especially horses, deer, and birds. Although there are also sculptures of human beings, fewer of these exist, and they seem less skillfully made. Because these early sculptures emphasized the geometric shapes that make up the figures, the style of early Archaic sculpture is called Geometric. An animal’s legs, for example, look more like cylinders than real legs. Sculptures made in this style are models of animals rather than realistic images of them.

By about 675 B.C., the more realistic Daedalic style of sculpture became popular. Although the style is named for Daedalus, the mythical founder of Greek sculpture, the Greeks probably adopted the style from artisans* of the Near East. In the Daedalic style, human figures are always shown facing forward, with their arms and hands pressed stiffly against their sides. Heads have flat tops, faces are triangular with large eyes and prominent noses, and hair lies neatly curled in layers. Although these figures look more realistic than those of the Geometric style, they appear emotionless in their body positions and facial features.

The Daedalic style of sculpture lasted until about 600 B.C., when Egyptian influences altered the style of Greek sculpture. The new style, which lasted for the remainder of the Archaic period, is best represented by its most common subjects—the kouros, or nude male youth, and the kore, or female youth dressed in close-fitting robes. These statues are usually life size or larger, and the figures are always shown standing with their left foot slightly forward and their fists clenched. Although the figures are more realistic than those of previous styles, they still look stiff and formal.

Some of the finest sculptures of the Archaic period are not statues but scenes sculpted in relief on buildings and monuments. Beginning in the 500s B.C., the Greeks used relief sculpture to decorate stone temples. These sculptures sometimes appeared on all sides of a building. Most reliefs depicted scenes from myths in which gods, goddesses, and heroes* battle monsters or giants. Relief sculptures also decorated gravestones and the bases of statues.

* Archaic in Greek history, refers to the period between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.

* artisan skilled craftsperson


Although the career of sculptor was a respectable one in ancient Greece, it was regarded as a craft rather than a profession. Because sculptors worked with their hands, they were considered similar to other craftspeople, such as shipbuilders and bakers. Only a few very successful sculptors—such as Lysippos—had artistic freedom, influence, and wealth from their work. Most sculptors worked for wages. They did not have their own studios. Instead, they moved from city to city where and when work was available, probably earning just enough money to survive.

Sculpture in the Classical Period. By the classical* period, Greek sculpture was beginning to be much more expressive of emotion. During the early classical period, the Severe style of sculpture was popular. Sculptors of this period tried to show the emotions of their subjects. The poses expressed defeat, fear, and other feelings, and their faces looked troubled and brooding. Even their robes appeared heavy as armor. Sculptures from the temple of Zeus at Olympia, which were created between 470 B.C. and 460 B.C., are typical of this style.

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

The high classical period, which lasted from about 450 B.C. to 400 B.C., was dominated by the Athenian sculptor Phidias. He was the artistic director of the great building program begun by the Athenian statesman Pericles, and his works included the huge gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena in the Parthenon. In Phidias’s sculptures, the heavy, severe forms of the early classical period were replaced by light, graceful lines. Even the robes that clothe the figures seem to flow over the surface of the sculpture. Hundreds of sculptors were trained in Phidias’s style while working on Pericles’ building program, and this style of sculpture became widespread throughout Greece.

Another well-known sculptor from the high classical period was Polyclitus. He is best known for the well-balanced proportions of his human figures. Polyclitus’s depiction of the human form became the standard for generations of Greek sculptors. Polyclitus also wrote a book addressing the technical problems that had challenged previous Greek sculptors for centuries.

Laocoon was the Trojan prince who tried to stop the Trojans from opening the gates to the wooden horse. He and his two sons were killed by sea serpents sent by Athena, the patron goddess of the Greeks.

Sculptures created at the end of the classical period show strong emotions. Instead of merely presenting grand scenes of gods, goddesses, and heroes, the later works also depicted ordinary individuals. Many works from the 300s B.C. are believed to have been created by the sculptor Skopas. His figures tend to be very serious, even tragic, with deep-set eyes and heavy, overhanging foreheads. Another well-known sculptor of this period was Praxiteles, who often expressed humor in his work. In one of his major sculptures, the smiling god Hermes dangles a bunch of grapes in front of the infant god Dionysus. Later sculptors widely imitated Praxiteles’ style.

The last great sculptor of the classical period was Lysippos, whose career spanned nearly four decades—from about 360 B.C. to 320 B.C. Lysippos was the court sculptor of Alexander the Great, who valued the expressive portraits the sculptor did of him. Lysippos also established a new standard of proportions for depicting the human body.

Sculpture in the Hellenistic Period. Sculpture in the Hellenistic* period began with the highly realistic and personal works created by Lysippos and his students. Lysippos’s school dominated Greek sculpture until the A.D. 200s. In fact, its influence has lasted into the present.

During the last half of the Hellenistic period, sculptors in the city of Pergamum in Asia Minor developed a style of sculpture that has come to be known as Hellenistic Baroque. The sculptures from this period are more realistic and expressive than any that had come earlier. In a style characterized by emotion, robes appear to swirl, bodies seem to twist in pain, and faces show extreme distress.

By the end of the Hellenistic period, a mix of several styles had become popular. Some sculptors specialized in lighthearted works of children at play, while others modeled their work on earlier styles from the Archaic or classical period. Roman collectors tended to prefer works modeled on earlier styles of Greek sculpture. (See also Architecture, Greek; Art, Greek; Sculpture, Roman.)

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

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