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The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Hellenistic Period


The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101 is a series of articles that opens a major project dedicated to analysing perceptions of the body in different civilisations, cultures, and societies.

This broad-brush study of this issue draws a prospect of a large-scale work since the visual, performative, and literary traditions from ancient times to this day have left an immense amount of research material for us. The relevance of addressing this subject seems to be permanent because it will always be attributable to the problems of a particular period and society. The real and the illusory social pressure that dictates rules of self-presentation is being actively comprehended and discussed at the moment, and it is a topic of acute importance. Also, the almost universal identification of people with their bodies easily leads to the fallacy that if an individual belongs to a society, their body belongs to this society too. Further, depending on the circumstances, rules are dictated, often endangering both the mental and physical health of individuals or whole social groups.

The series is divided into the following chapters:

The Culture of the Hellenistic Period in Ancient Greece

The Hellenistic period in the history of ancient Greece is framed by the “traditional bookends of Alexander the Great and Kleopatra” as Glenn Richard Bugh, the associate professor of ancient and Byzantine history at Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University, denominates it in the introduction toThe Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World (2006, p. 2). The period captures three centuries between the death of Alexander in 323 BCE and the fall of Hellenistic Egypt under the Roman conquest in 30 BCE. By the beginning of the Hellenistic period, Athens – which in the Classical period dominated in the spheres of political, economic, and cultural influences among other Greek states – had lost its former power. The vast geography of Alexander’s conquests led to the formation of several significant cultural centers of the Hellenistic world. The interrelation between the Greek culture with the cultural heritage of the neighboring countries was strong throughout the whole history of ancient Greece. Trade, colonization, and even wars impacted Greek visual and literary traditions (Boardman, 1964). However, it was the actual political domination of an extensive and culturally inhomogeneous territory that became arguably the most powerful catalyst for changes in Greek art and worldview.

Alexander the Great in The Battle of Issus Mosaic, ca. 100 BCE. [Marble, limestone]

One of the significant political and social consequences of the reign of Alexander the Great was the establishment of the monarchy as the central form of governance throughout the Hellenistic world. In addition, the image of Alexander constituted a behavioral and visual stereotypical model of the ruler, the king, imprinted in the public consciousness for centuries ahead. The king was expected to be of distinguishing physical qualities, emphasizing their superiority together with an arrogant and authoritative manner of addressing the subordinates (Price, 1991). Furthermore, although nominally the Hellenistic rulers asserted democracy as the only format of political administration, the power was, as a matter of fact, concentrated in the hands of the richest city dwellers. In this regard, a passage by Simon Prince, an eminent scholar of antiquity, is of interest. In his History of the Hellenistic Period in the Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World, Price introduces the wealthy and influential Athenian Philippides. Philippides, active at the end of the third century BCE, demonstrated his social status, among other strategies, by paying for the burial of Athenians who died in battles and releasing prisoners (p. 383). A seemingly small detail that can serve, however, as an indicator of the transition of the body perception from the area of political or religious ideology to the sphere of hierarchical social relations in the Hellenistic period.

Succeeding the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided into several kingdoms, led by the Ptolemaic, Seleucid, Attalid, and Antigonid dynasties. Representatives of these dynasties carried on the tradition, begun by Alexander, of founding new Greek cities, and establishing and spreading Greek influence. Greek culture in these territories coexisted with the local ones under the condition of its absolute primacy (Price, 1991). Nevertheless, despite the artificially slowed and not fully implemented process of the intermingling of cultures, the influence of native tradition can be traced in all areas of the artistic and intellectual life of the Hellenistic kingdoms.

The Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace, 190 BCE. [Marble]

Sculpture, owing to its representative qualities and the comparatively large list of surviving copies, can serve as the main art form to demonstrate the change and evolution of trends in the art of the Hellenistic period. Countless are the works of local workshops or individual masters, whose belonging to a particular school is often difficult to determine since the nature of the period itself and the mobility of artists, as well as the specifics of local commissions, make it difficult for researchers of ancient art to satisfactorily classify the heritage of the age (Beazley & Ashmole, 1932). However, there were few major and influential centers from which the artworks spread around the Hellenistic world. The following sculptural schools stand out: Pergamon, Rhodian, Alexandrian, and the school of mainland Greece.

The Rhodian school owned the now-lost Colossus of Rhodes - a sculpture of the sun god Helios exceeding 30 meters in height, created around 290 BCE (Ashley, 1998). Generally, the existence of such sculpture vouch for interpolis competition rather than for the special religiosity of the inhabitants of Rhodes. The giant image of a beautiful male body that greeted the sailors approaching the island seems primarily to be a demonstration of exceptional human abilities. Over and above that, the surviving sculpture of Nike of Samothrace created around 190 BCE also embodied, both ideologically and visually, a symbol of victorious triumph (Janson, 1995). The sculptural group of the Rhodian school, found on the island of Sperlonga and depicting the blinding of Polyphemus by Odysseus, expresses the same meaning. The freedom, emotionality, and expressiveness, inherent in the sculpture of this school, highlight precisely the humanistic orientation of the art of the Hellenistic era. This reinforces the above assumption for which people from this era identify themself separately from the inexplicable forces of nature, but rather as part of a structure where personal qualities and social factors are crucial. If physical strength in the classical era figuratively embodied the balance of the favor of the gods and personal qualities, in the Hellenistic period is the triumph of individual achievements to be celebrated.

The Dying Gaul, ca. 60-40 BCE Roman copy of a 230-220 BCE Hellenistic original. [Marble]

Next, in order, the Pergamon school includes outstanding type of sculptures of dying Gauls, which are distinguished by their special naturalism. The main motif of these sculptures is victory and in addition to great expressiveness, emphasizing the emotional richness that accompanies this victorious spirit, a distinctive feature is the careful depiction of wounds. The almost physiologically realistic approach to the representation of death is uncharacteristic of either earlier Greek art or the art of mainland Greece of the Hellenistic period, which more consistently preserved classical traditions, and runs counter to the aesthetic worldview system that prevailed in the Classical period, striving for exceptional harmony (Boardman, 1993).

Despite the dominance of urban culture and the general tendency toward personal glorification described above, the pastoral genre developed in the visual arts and literature of the Hellenistic period (Lane Fox, 1991). The mundane nature of such works, without idealization, dealt with the human body, which is clearly expressed in the surviving epigrams and literary jokes. Terracotta figurines depicting ordinary women, which were widely used, also turned out to be in the trend of depicting everyday reality. Overall, the image of the female body, including the nude, in the art of the Hellenistic period is relatively more widespread than in the Greek art of the previous Classical and Archaic periods. There is no longer a gap in technical quality in the sculptural depiction of men and women (Boardman, 1993). On the territory of the Hellenistic kingdoms, there were cultures in which the position of women differed from the one accepted in the classical tradition, and, perhaps, a qualitative transition in the representation of women in Greek art occurred under the influence of these cultures.

The Hellenistic period left numerous material sources for studying the aesthetic and ideological nature of its culture. Despite this, it undeservedly remains one of the least studied and described periods of Greek antiquity (Bugh, 2006). Different aspects and diversity of the Hellenistic culture can be devoted to pages of research. Nevertheless, a characteristic feature of Hellenistic art – its humanistic orientation – remains repeatedly noted and conspicuous. People of the Hellenistic period acquire greater control over their destiny and body, which characteristically distinguishes the period against the background of both previous and subsequent eras in Greek history.


Ashley J. R. (1998). The Macedonian empire : the era of warfare under Philip II and Alexander the Great 359-323 b.c. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.

Barnes, J. (1991). Hellenistic philosophy and science. In J. Boardman, J. Griffin, O. Murray (Eds.) The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beazley, J.D.; Ashmole, B. (1932). Greek sculpture & painting: To the end of the Hellenistic period. London: Cambridge University Press.

Boardman, J. (1964). The Greeks overseas. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.

Boardman, J. (Ed.). (1993). The Oxford history of classical art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bugh, G.R. (Ed.). (2006). The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Janson, H. W. (1995). History of Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Lane Fox, R. (1991). Hellenistic culture and literature. In J. Boardman, J. Griffin, O. Murray (Eds.) The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ling, R. (1991). Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman art. In J. Boardman, J. Griffin, O. Murray (Eds.) The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Price, S. (1991). The history of the Hellenistic period. In J. Boardman, J. Griffin, O. Murray (Eds.) The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thonemann, P. (2016). The Hellenistic age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walbank, F. W. (1982). The Hellenistic world. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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Eugenia Ivanova

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