The roots of Classical Greece lie in the Geometric period of about ca. 900 to 700 B.C., a time of dramatic transformation that led to the establishment of primary Greek institutions. The Greek city-state (polis) was formed, the Greek alphabet was developed, and new opportunities for trade and colonization were realized in cities founded along the coast of Asia Minor, in southern Italy, and in Sicily. With the development of the Greek city-states came the construction of large temples and sanctuaries dedicated to patron deities, which signaled the rise of state religion. Each polis identified with its own legendary hero. By the end of the eighth century B.C., the Greeks had founded a number of major Panhellenic sanctuaries dedicated to the Olympian gods.
Geometric Greece experienced a cultural revival of its historical past through epic poetry and the visual arts. The eighth century B.C. was the time of Homer, whose epic poems describe the Greek campaign against Troy (the Iliad) and the subsequent adventures of Odysseus on his return to Ithaca (the Odyssey). A newly emerging aristocracy distinguished itself with material wealth and through references to the Homeric past. Their graves were furnished with metal objects, innately precious by the scarcity of copper, tin, and gold deposits in Greece.
Evidence for the Geometric culture has come down to us in the form of epic poetry, artistic representation, and the archaeological record. From Hesiod (Erga 639–40), we assume that most eighth-century B.C. Greeks lived off the land. The epic poet describes the difficult life of the Geometric farmer. There are, however, few archaeological remains that describe everyday life during this period. Monumental kraters, originally used as grave markers, depict funerary rituals and heroic warriors. The presence of fine metalwork attests to prosperity and trade. In the earlier Geometric period, these objects, weapons, fibulae, and jewelry are found in graves—most likely relating to the status of the deceased. By the late eighth century B.C., however, the majority of metal objects are small bronze figurines—votive offerings associated with sanctuaries.
Votive offerings of bronze and terracotta, and painted scenes on monumental vessels attest to a renewed interest in figural imagery that focuses on funerary rituals and the heroic world of aristocratic warriors and their equipment. The armed warrior, the chariot, and the horse are the most familiar symbols of the Geometric period. Iconographically, Geometric images are difficult to interpret due to the lack of inscriptions and the scarcity of identifying attributes. There can be little doubt, however, that many of the principal characters and stories of Greek mythology already existed, and that they simply had not yet received explicit visual form.
Surviving material shows a mastery of the major media—turning, decorating, and firing terracotta vases; casting and cold-working bronze; engraving gems; and working gold. The only significant medium that had not yet evolved was that of monumental stone sculpture—large-scale cult images most likely were constructed of a perishable material such as wood. Instead, powerful bronze figurines and monumental clay vases manifest the clarity and order that are, perhaps, the most salient characteristics of Greek art.