The Classical Period (c. 480-400 BCE)


During the Archaic period (600-480 BCE) Greece completed a revolution in art, thought, and politics. In art, there is, for example, the developing realism in kouros figures. In thought, two main streams emerge: the scientific-philosophical and the mystical-religious. The first exhibits a marked hominocentric trend towards secular rationalizing (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes), and the other an impulse to embrace some kind of mystical or transcendental belief (Pythagoras, Heracleitus, Xenophanes). In politics, the period managed to evolve a democratic government in Athens initiated under Solon (demos = the people; kratein = to rule, kratos = authority). Also, under Peisistratus, various economic, social, and civic-religious innovations.

During this same period, Persia in the East had been rising as a great imperial power and Greek history is dominated by the Persian shadow from 514 to 479. Towards the end of the 6th century, the Persia Empire, under King Darius, had absorbed the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor. In 499 the Ionian Greeks revolted with help from the mainland cities of Athens and Eretria. The revolt was stamped out, and the Persians decided also to punish the mainland cities. In 490, a raid destroyed Eretria, but ended in the repulse of the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, 20 miles from Athens.

This victory, achieved by a greatly outnumbered force of Athenians and their Plataian allies under the leadership of Miltiades, electrified the Greek world. In 480, a more massive invasion designed to conquer Greece was mounted by King Xerxes. This Persian force defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylai and invaded Attica. At the instigation of Themistokles, the Athenians abandoned their city, which was captured and sacked. There followed a battle at sea, the Battle of Salamis, in which the Greeks defeated the Persian fleet. In 479, Persian army was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea. The victory of the Greeks over the Persians marks the end of the Archaic period and the beginning of the Classical.

Classical Sculpture

The 5th century has been considered the height of Greek civilization, after which everything inevitably declined. Today it is generally recognized that the art of the 5th century is part of the general development of Greek art and should not be praised above any other period. Three more less distinct phases can be recognized.

  1. The Early Classical (Severe Style) – 480–450 BCE
    Something of a transitional period in which lingering Archaic forms exist beside more advanced Classical renderings. Style characterized by:
    1. a simplification of forms
    2. a simplification in treatment of drapery
    3. new subjects shown in motion or expressing emotion

  2. The High Classical (Age of Perikles) – 450–430 BCE
    A very strong and potent style developed. Human form idealized. Individual traits suppressed, as were extremes of old age and youth. Certain homogeneity achieved. Sculpture of the period dominated by Pheidias

  3. The Later Fifth Century – 430–400 BCE
    A loosening of the Pheidias style in the direction of elaboration and sophistication of treatment of details, especially drapery. Restrained nature of High Classical starts to fade.

Sculpture at the end of the 5th century reflects the influence of Pheidias and Polykleitos, combined to produce a period of gentle richness in figure style and composition with an introspective quality, a sensitive mood and emotion reminiscent, one feels, of the humanity of Euripedes.

Historical background

Peloponnesian War, 431–405 BCE, was fought between Athens and Sparta. Sparta was finally victorious, but both city-states were crippled. Domestic strife followed at Athens under an oligarchic government set up with Spartan support. Short rule was characterized by political suppression and murder. It was eventually overthrown by democratic forces in 403.


  • acropolis = the fortified hill-centre of a Greek polis, or city-state.
  • caryatid = female supporting figure (said to be named from the statuesque women of Karyai in Laconia).
  • Nike = victory.
  • Parthenon = place of the virgins, or Virgin.
  • parthenos = virgin
  • Pentelic (quarries) = main source of Attic marble, on Mount Pentelikon bordering the plain of Athens.
  • Polias = epithet of Athena, as Guardian of the City.
  • propylaia = the complex of structures on either side of an entrance gate to a walled area.

© Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe