Truth beauty wrote John Keats, one of the most influential poets of the 19th century, as he admired the dark figures on an ancient vase in his poem On a Grecian Urn. To this day, the Ancient Greeks are known for their in-depth analyses of proportion, dedication to rationalism, and meditations on the definition of beauty. These ideas, now commonly classified under Classicism, actually have roots in Ancient Egyptian culture. It is no surprise that two of history’s most advanced cultures, the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Egyptians, are closely intertwined; a desire for truth and beauty bind the two. The Ancient Greeks found inspiration in their predecessors, the Ancient Egyptians, and improved upon many of their scientific and artistic advancements. The Greek emphasis on science, rationalism, truth, and beauty continues to shape today’s world. Because of their contact with and admiration for the Ancient Egyptians and their culture, the Greeks pioneered the study of geometry and the natural sciences, created beautiful and lifelike sculptures, and established a trade network in Egypt that allowed them to expand their empire.Maths and SciencesMany people erroneously attribute the origins of geometry and mathematics to the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, however, another scientist, Thales of Miletus, predates him and his work.
Thales of Miletus was the son of a wealthy merchant, and he visited Egypt at the young age of 22 during the 6th century BCE. Here, he studied natural phenomena such as earthquakes and the rise and fall of the Nile River in order to understand and explain their environment . At the time of his studies, local Egyptians worshipped Hapi, a fertility god associated with the flooding of the Nile River, to whom they offered prayers and gifts in hopes of ensuring a fruitful harvest. Rather than blame a supernatural entity for everyday occurences, Thales identified patterns, such as what time of the year the Nile River rose and fell, and most historians credit him for the switch between believing the gods were responsible for day-to-day events and [the belief] that if we understood natural phenomena we could actually explain and predict events. This concept of using experience and observation to understand the natural world is called ‘rationalism’, and it has directly impacted contemporary scientific thought. Empiricism, the belief that all knowledge comes from human experience and can be quantified numerically, and the scientific method both stem directly from Thales research, and it is for this reason that the Ancient Greeks are considered pioneers in the natural sciences.After years of observing and recording natural patterns and phenomena in Egypt, Thales of Miletus established the Milesian School of Science and Mathematics in the sixth century B.C., which produced some of ancient society’s most influential scientists, including Pythagoras of Samos.
Pythagoras of Samos, a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, began his studies at the Milesian school, and although he is known for his geometric proofs and the Pythagorean theorem, he also questioned the concept of number, the concept of a triangle or other mathematical figure and the abstract idea of a proof, and introduced a degree of abstraction to the study of numbers, which had never been seen before. In fact, Pythagoras and his followers were likely the first to toy with the concept of rational and irrational numbers.In addition to his musings about numbers, Pythagoras made substantial contributions to the science of astronomy. While in Egypt, Pythagoras had the privilege of visiting temples and talking with Egyptian priests. He studied the Pyramids of Giza and and how they were located in relation to the stars, and he recognized that the orbit of the moon was inclined to the equator of the Earth. Only an intense desire for truth could motivate one to truly appreciate the night sky and painstakingly study and record the movements of the stars and other celestial bodies like the Ancient Greek astronomers. Their love for measurement, experience, and proportion also manifests itself in the Ancient Greek’s quest for perfection and beauty in the visual arts.
Although the Ancient Egyptians were one of the first cultures to attempt to objectively define and depict physical beauty by using their canon of proportion, the Greeks adopted that calculated approach to depicting the human form and elevated it to a place it had never before been. Ancient Egyptian art used a universal system of depicting the human form in painting, hieroglyphics, and sculpture called the ‘canon of proportions’. In order to create this system, the Egyptians divided the human body, using a grid comprised of 18 equal squares …this strict system of measurement divided the body into 18 equal parts from the hairline to the soles of the feet[and] the result was a standard set of proportions for all human beings depicted in wall paintings and stone sculptures. This systematic approach to art shows the Ancient Egyptians’ preference for idealized depictions of humans. For the most part, Egyptian statues depicted royal figures, and Egyptian pharaohs and their families held the same status as gods in their religious culture. The Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife, and many of these statues were funerary statues. Perhaps this explains the lack of individualized features, because any detail that could possibly suggest a royal’s mortality would be considered profane. By eliminating characteristics such as wrinkles, moles, and baldness, the Egyptian sculptors ensured that their subjects appeared looked young, beautiful, and powerful forever.Evidence of this heavy artistic idealization can be found on Figure 1, an Egyptian statue of King Menkaure (Mycerinus) (c.2530 BC ) and his queen. Here, the shoulders are wider than the hips, indicating a person who is in good physical shape and health. The arms are equal in length, and everything follows the ‘canon of proportions’.
The faces are blank and stern, and there are no otherwise differentiating features. The basalt is polished and shiny, the subjects face forward (characteristic of Egyptian canonical sculpture) and each subject has one leg that is foreshortened and extended towards the viewer, suggesting a more relaxed pose. The Ancient Greeks desired perfection in their artwork, but not at the expense of individualism and naturalism in their depiction of the human form. The Greeks appreciated the canon because it established] a standard and impose[d] an aesthetic order it was an order of ratios and numbers.[and] it forced the artist to think ahead. Rationalism dominated the Greek approach to the arts as they too used ratio and equations to search for the perfect proportions in their sculpture.Figure 2 depicts a Kouros (Greek for young boy) statue; these Archaic Greek sculptures express an faithfulness to the Egyptian canon of proportions, and they could be found all over the Greek-speaking world. Like Figure 1, Figure 2 shows an individual facing forward, with one leg in front of the other. However, unlike Figure 1, Figure 2 shows an attempt to include features that add an element of individualism and naturalism to the piece.
For example, the Kouros appears to have lines in the hair that delineate braids and texture, unlike the smooth, black surface of the subjects’ hair in Figure 1. The kneecaps are clearly defined and his genitals are visible. Rather than smooth everything out and show an idealized and polished version of this young boy, artist clearly intended to portray him as naturally as possible.The Archaic period and the Kouros statues express a dedication to the canon, but it would be a few hundred more years before the enormous, intensely detailed and lifelike statues for which the Ancient Greeks are known, would become commonplace in their society. In Figure 3, it is clear that the Greek sculptor Polykleitos not only paid extreme detail to using accurate proportions, but he also elevated the piece by including elements of naturalism and individualism. This piece is widely known as one of the best examples of Ancient Greek sculpture from fifth-century BCE because it portrays the masculine ideal. By this time in history, the Ancient Greeks had long strayed from the stern and idealized statues of their Egyptian predecessors. Similar to Figures 1 and 2, Figure 3 retains the forward-facing, one-leg-extended stance that was required by the canon of proportions. The shoulders are wide, still wider than his hips, and the attention to detail is extraordinary.
The facial features and haircut are specific to the subject, and the figure is perfectly proportionate. By the fifth-century BCE, the Greek concept of beauty had evolved to include not only perfect proportions, but also lifelike details such as fingers, genitals, and specific hairstyles and textures. To clarify, the sculpture in Figure 3 is still highly idealized. Doryphoros’ physique appears perfect — there isn’t a wrinkle, mole, or bald spot that could potentially suggest that he is sick, or aging, or not in the prime of his life. His chest looks muscular and strong, his nose has a prominent bridge, and he is honestly drop-dead gorgeous. Doryphoros does not just suggest perfection, as the Ancient Egyptian sculptures attempted to do; he is perfection. Every line and curve and ab and rib looks like it is supposed to be there. When the Greeks adopted the Egyptian proportional system [their] sculpture acquired finish, elegance, and precision. The Greeks had access to marble, a stone that was not prevalent in Greece, which led to a smooth finish that closely resembles human skin, unlike the limestone and sandstone pieces commonly created by the Egyptians.This particular piece originated from a bronze cast, which has long since been lost, and it shows that the Greeks intended to replicate this piece over and over again, and try to preserve the perfect balance of the natural and the ideal that they struck.Clearly, the Greeks made substantial contributions to the visual arts, and remnants of their sculpture and pottery can be found at archaeological sites all around the world. That their items are so widespread and respected is evidence of Greece’s history and success with of international trade, which allowed them to spread their politics, culture, and art worldwide.
In addition to their contributions to the sciences and the visual arts, the Ancient Greeks helped globalize the Ancient world after establishing trading colonies in other countries, particularly in Egypt. Both countries have a long and rich history of trading goods and ideas by way of the Mediterranean Sea and the Silk Road. The fertile Nile River served as a breadbasket and Egypt …was a major source of grain for Greek cities, [which was] essential for securing sufficient supplies of grain particularly in times of crisis. Without access to these Egyptian grain supplies, it is possible that a lack of food security would have caused internal conflict within the country. By establishing solid trade relations with Egypt, the Greeks set themselves up for success and paved the way to becoming world leaders. The majority of contemporary knowledge of how the Egyptian and Greek economies functioned comes from the Greek historian Herodotus accounts of history and trade. The Egyptians had a strong economy that was controlled by the Pharaohs and the state.
According to Herodotus, Psammetichus I [an Egyptian pharaoh], initially had to contend for control of Egypt, and he secured his rule with the help of Greek mercenaries; [therefore] permanent Greek mercenary camps were established in the [Nile River] Delta. The Greeks helped secure the Egyptian empire, and many decided that they wanted to stay in Egypt and live as merchants in a port city near the mouth of the delta called Naukratis. The Egyptians, however, were extremely protective of their economy, and one needed permission from the Pharoah to reside in Naukratis. It was an extremely diverse city, full of people of many other cultures who wanted to trade with Egypt. Naukratis . [was]functioning as a strictly controlled marketplace for long-distance exchange that protected the local [Egyptian] system from external influence. The Greeks found themselves in a trade hub in one of the most fertile and technologically advanced regions in the world, and they took full advantage of it, which allowed them to expand their empire and become leaders in the ancient world.Naukratis was not only a popular destination for trading goods, but also for trading cultural norms and ideas.
For this reason, this ancient city is widely known as one of the earliest hubs of globalization. Economists suggest that the phenomenon of merchant colonies greatly increased during this period, following the expansion of the trade network…the establishment of the large empires…created more favourable conditions for merchants to move across wider areas and settle far from their homelands. Residing in a country outside of their own borders allowed Greek merchants and their families to learn new languages, spread the Greek language throughout North Africa and the Ancient Near East, and establish solid trade networks throughout the world. Evidence suggests that these routes of trade tended to outlast the political empires through which they crossed, and this is how the Greeks solidified themselves as leaders in trade.In conclusion, the Ancient Greeks were heavily dependent on the Ancient Egyptians for many, if not all, of their scientific, cultural, and artistic advancements. By closely studying the Ancient Egyptians and then improving on their advancements, the Greeks pioneered rational scientific thought, created amazing sculptures and monuments that still stand today, and helped globalize the ancient world by utilizing the Nile River delta and fostering positive international trade connections with North Africa and the Near East.
Figure 1. Basalt Statue of Egyptian Royals. King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490“2472 B.C.E., greywacke\Figure 2. Marble statue of a kouros (youth). Taken from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/32.11.1/Figure 3. Doryphoros. Taken from Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge. https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/doryphoros-0BibliographyAltaweel, Mark. Revolutionizing a World. UCL Press, 2018.Bergeron, Marianne. “Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt.” British Museum. Accessed May 03, 2018. https://www.britishmuseum.org/naukratis.Cagalgno, Claire. “Reviewed Work(s): Naukratis: Trade in Archaic Greece by Astrid Meller Review By: Claire Calcagno.” Reviewed Work(s): Naukratis: Trade in Archaic Greece by Astrid Meller Review By: Claire Calcagno. Accessed May 03, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3116549.Davis, Whitney M. “Egypt, Samos, and the Archaic Style in Greek Sculpture.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 67 (1981): 61. doi:10.2307/3856603.”Doryphoros.” Museum of Classical Archaeology. Accessed May 03, 2018. https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/doryphoros-0.Drijvers, Jan Willem. “Strabo 17.1.18 (801C): Inaros, the Milesians and Naucratis, Mnemosyne 52.1 (1999), Pp. 16-22.” Academia.edu. Accessed May 03, 2018. https://www.academia.edu/330427/Strabo_17.1.18_801C_Inaros_the_Milesians_and_Naucratis_Mnemosyne_52.1_1999_pp._16-22.”Egyptian Proportions.” https://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/resources/Rsrc_001848.pdf.”Thales.” Famous Scientists. Accessed May 03, 2018. https://www.famousscientists.org/thales/.”King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and Queen.” Khan Academy. Accessed May 03, 2018. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/egypt-art/predynastic-old-kingdom/a/king-menkaure-mycerinus-and-queen.O’Connor, J.J. “Pythagoras of Samos.” School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland. January 1999. Accessed May 02, 2018. https://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Pythagoras.html.”Pythagoras – Greek Mathematics – The Story of Mathematics.” The Story of Mathematics. Accessed May 03, 2018. https://www.storyofmathematics.com/greek_pythagoras.html.
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