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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition

Between 334 and 323 B.C., Alexander the Great and his armies conquered much of the known world, creating an empire that stretched from Greece and Asia Minor through Egypt and the Persian empire in the Near East to India. This unprecedented contact with cultures far and wide disseminated Greek culture and its arts, and exposed Greek artistic styles to a host of new exotic influences. The death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. traditionally marks the beginning of the Hellenistic period.

Alexander’s generals, known as the Diadochoi, that is, “successors,” divided the many lands of his empire into kingdoms of their own. New Hellenistic dynasties emerged—the Seleucids in the Near East, the Ptolemies in Egypt (2002.66), and the Antigonids in Macedonia. However, some Greek city-states asserted their independence through alliances. The most important of such alliances between several city-states were the Aetolian League in western central Greece and the Achaean League based in the Peloponnesos.

During the first half of the third century B.C., smaller kingdoms broke off from the vast Seleucid kingdom and established their independence. Northern and central Asia Minor was divided into the kingdoms of Bithynia, Galatia, Paphlagonia, Pontus, and Cappadocia. Each of these new kingdoms was ruled by a local dynasty lingering from the earlier Achaemenid Persian empire, but infused with new, Greek elements. The Attalid royal family of the great city-state of Pergamon reigned over much of western Asia Minor, and an influential dynasty of Greek and Macedonian descent ruled over a vast kingdom that stretched from Bactria to the Far East. In this greatly expanded Greek world, Hellenistic art and culture emerged and flourished.

Hellenistic kingship remained the dominant political form in the Greek East for nearly three centuries following the death of Alexander the Great. Royal families lived in splendid palaces with elaborate banquet halls and sumptuously decorated rooms and gardens. Court festivals and symposia held in the royal palaces provided opportunities for lavish displays of wealth. Hellenistic kings became prominent patrons of the arts, commissioning public works of architecture and sculpture, as well as private luxury items that demonstrated their wealth and taste. Jewelry, for example, took on new elaborate forms and incorporated rare and unique stones. New precious and semiprecious stones were available through newly established trade routes. Concurrently, increased commercial and cultural exchanges, and the greater mobility of goldsmiths and silversmiths, led to the establishment of a koine (common language) throughout the Hellenistic world.

Hellenistic art is richly diverse in subject matter and in stylistic development. It was created during an age characterized by a strong sense of history. For the first time, there were museums and great libraries, such as those at Alexandria and Pergamon (1972.118.95). Hellenistic artists copied and adapted earlier styles, and also made great innovations. Representations of Greek gods took on new forms (1996.178; 11.55). The popular image of a nude Aphrodite, for example, reflects the increased secularization of traditional religion. Also prominent in Hellenistic art are representations of Dionysos, the god of wine and legendary conqueror of the East, as well as those of Hermes, the god of commerce. In strikingly tender depictions, Eros, the Greek personification of love, is portrayed as a young child (43.11.4).

One of the immediate results of the new international Hellenistic milieu was the widened range of subject matter that had little precedent in earlier Greek art. There are representations of unorthodox subjects, such as grotesques, and of more conventional inhabitants, such as children and elderly people (09.39). These images, as well as the portraits of ethnic people, especially those of Africans, describe a diverse Hellenistic populace.

A growing number of art collectors commissioned original works of art and copies of earlier Greek statues (09.221.4). Likewise, increasingly affluent consumers were eager to enhance their private homes and gardens with luxury goods, such as fine bronze statuettes, intricately carved furniture decorated with bronze fittings, stone sculpture, and elaborate pottery with mold-made decoration. These lavish items were manufactured on a grand scale as never before.

The most avid collectors of Greek art, however, were the Romans, who decorated their town houses and country villas with Greek sculptures according to their interests and taste. The wall paintings from the villa at Boscoreale, some of which clearly echo lost Hellenistic Macedonian royal paintings, and exquisite bronzes (1972.118.95) in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection testify to the refined classical environment that the Roman aristocracy cultivated in their homes. By the first century B.C., Rome was a center of Hellenistic art production, and numerous Greek artists came there to work.

The conventional end of the Hellenistic period is 31 B.C., the date of the Battle of Actium. Octavian, who later became the emperor Augustus, defeated Marc Antony’s fleet and, consequently, ended Ptolemaic rule. The Ptolemies were the last Hellenistic dynasty to fall to Rome.

Interest in Greek art and culture remained strong during the Roman Imperial period, and especially so during the reigns of the emperors Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–14 A.D.) and Hadrian (r. 117–138 A.D.). For centuries, Roman artists continued to make works of art in the Hellenistic tradition.