Museum of Greek History

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This user gallery has been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.

When the average person thinks about ancient Greece, he or she often misguidedly envisions a history much closer to that of Rome: a mythical founding perhaps, followed by domination of a single Greek state, concluded with a gradual decline into global irrelevance. Of course, ancient Greek history no more resembles this tale than it resembles United States history. It is instead characterized by roots dating back to the foundations of civilization, constantly shifting power dynamics between individually governed states linked by geography and race, and a swift conclusion to independence brought on by foreign domination. This museum seeks to capture the diversity of hegemony in Greece through artifacts representing the groups with the most power across the span of Greek history. The artifacts are ordered by the chronology of the power-holder they represent, not by the chronology of their origin, although these often coincide. The museum’s primary agenda is impress upon the viewer not only the magnitude of the changes Greece saw over time, but more importantly the concept of Greece as an idea, as a culture, as a region, but not as a single unified state. The first object is a “gold hammered bowl”, dating back to between 3000BC and 2800BC and estimated to be from Makrykapa, Euboea. The bowl, standing almost a meter tall, was undoubtedly expensive to create, and is thought to have been used as a grave offering rather than a functional eating vessel. Originating in the Early Bronze Age, the bowl must have belonged to an extremely wealthy family who had the resources to bury such a luxury. During this time, Greek civilization was beginning to take root. Not much evidence of societal structure has survived, but is evident that there was a form of stratification. A House of Tiles has been excavated at Lerna on the Peloponnese, dating back to this period. This building had a tile roof and was larger than those around it, indicating wealth inequality. In its early days, Greece consisted of these types of scattered settlements, where the extremely limited quantity of power available belonged to those wealthy enough to bury an extravagant gold bowl like the one displayed. The next object, the Corinthian Helmet, is made of bronze and is a remnant of the Archaic period, dating to circa 550 BC. This type of helmet, along with a breastplate, greaves, and hoplon shield, made up the armor used in hoplite warfare, developed between 725 and 650 BC. Individual soldiers, called hoplites, would wear this armor weighing about seventy pounds and fight side by side in a tight formation called a phalanx. Besides being the primary method of combat employed by Greeks for centuries to come, the introduction of the hoplite vastly changed the power structure of Greece. On a basic level, power began to belong to states with strong hoplite armies, evidenced by Corinth (the origin of this helmet) gaining power early, relative to other states. Around the same time, society was transforming from scattered chieftain systems to the polis (city-state) system, where households were politically unified around a central government in a capital city. Fighting side by side with other members of the polis and relying on another’s hoplon shield to protect their bodies, Greeks developed a sense of unity and common identity, strengthening the power of the polis. Poets like Tyrtaeus glorified fighting and dying for one’s polis, further unifying the city-state. Finally, within the phalanx wealth and lineage were inconsequential, enforcing a sense of equality among citizens. The aristocracy alone could no longer claim to be the only ones defending the polis, and was therefore forced to share its power with the middle class. The third item, the “relief of a spear-carrier”, is Persian rather than Greek, and dates to between 546 and 482 BC. During this time, the Persian Empire exploded in size under King Darius. He commanded a massive army, and in 490 led an invasion of Greece. Much like how the phalanx created a common identity among citizens of the polis, this foreign threat solidified for the first time a common Greek identity. The Persians were alien in both culture and appearance. The spear-carrier in this particular relief is an Immortal, one of Darius’ ten thousand most deadly soldiers. The light armor, long robe, headgear, and bow and quiver contrast sharply with the heavy, bulky armor of the Greek hoplite. Observing a dichotomy in their heritage and that of the Persians, Greeks banded together to form the Hellenic League, headed by Sparta, in 481, swearing an oath of loyalty to Greece. This exhibit therefore demonstrates not only that Greece and Persia wielded comparable power towards the end of the Archaic Period, but also sets the stage for poleis to vie for power over Greece as a whole. The Hellenic League showed Greek city-states that the region could be unified, and much like Sparta at this time, different poleis could hold powerful positions over others. As seen later in Greek history through organizations like the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues, the heads of these confederations have the most influence over Greece. The next item in the museum is a “gilded bronze statue of Hercules”, most likely molded from a Greek statue of the fourth century BC. Hercules is the Roman name for the divine Greek hero Heracles, son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Known for his incomparable strength and fighting ability, the Spartiates laid claim to his lineage. They fashioned themselves to be the ultimate warriors, trained from an early age to fight and kill. Their allegiance lay first and foremost to Sparta herself, and they were raised by the state rather than family. This warrior culture spawned Greece’s deadliest hoplite army and established Sparta as the most powerful polis from around 700 BC until the development of the Delian League in 477. Chosen as the head of the Hellenic League before the Persian Wars, Spartan power grew even more with their agency in defeating the armies of Xerxes in 479. The gilded statue of Hercules should therefore serve to not only indicate the concentration of power in Sparta during the Archaic period, but also to capture the spirit of the Spartan people that made the polis so formidable. The fifth object is a “detail of the east frieze (block IV)” of the Parthenon in Athens. It is a marble depiction of Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite created for the Parthenon between 442 and 438 BC. Leading up to this time, Athens became a major power-holder in Greece, along with Sparta, due to its pivotal role in defeating the Persian forces under both Darius and Xerxes. In 477, Athens headed the Delian League, with the claimed intention of exacting revenge on Persia. Athens managed the finances of the league, and took 1/60 of the member states’ dues for Athena, presumably to be employed in building projects under the strategos Pericles. The Parthenon, built from 447 to 432, was a major temple of Athena and was funded with this money. It eventually housed the treasury of the Delian League, and, as a show of Athenian power, displayed tribute lists in marble along the outside. During this time, Athens reached its apex of both power and territory, controlling almost all ports in the Aegean Sea. Athens had seemingly endless funds with which to build up its navy, and equally endless supplies of resources from its territories. Commanding the most political influence, the strongest navy, and the most abundant treasury in Greece, Athens dominated the power dynamic until it suffered devastating losses in the Peloponnesian War around 415. The next item is an inscribing of two “Decrees for Samos”, dating to 405/4 and 403/2 BC. The decrees express Athenian gratitude for Samos’ allegiance through the end of the Peloponnesian War, during which Athens suffered massive losses in ships, manpower, money, and territory. The decrees honor and bestow privileges upon Samos for its loyalty. The existence of this artifact speaks volumes about the changes in the power structure of Greece brought on by the Peloponnesian War, specifically the Sicilian Expedition. Amidst the war, but prior to the Expedition, Melos, an island similar to Samos in size, tried to dissent from Athens. As recorded by Thucydides in the “Melian Dialogue”, Athens responded with the claim that it was so strong that there was no question of justice or equality, only of Melos’ survival. When Melos still refused alliance, Athens murdered all of its men and sold all of its women and children into slavery. This merciless interaction with a potential island ally before the Sicilian Expedition sharply contrasts with Athens’ benevolent affirmation of Samos after the Peloponnesian War came to an end. Forced to surrender all but twelve ships in 404, Athens has clearly by this time lost its dominance over Greece. Further, its aggressive spirit is sufficiently curbed, as evidenced in these decrees and its later interaction with allies in the Second Athenian Confederacy. It is important to note that although Sparta and the Peloponnesian League emerged victorious from the Peloponnesian War, they suffered extremely heavy losses as well, creating a power vacuum in Greece at the advent of the fourth century BC. The seventh object in the museum is a stater (coin) from Thebes, dating to between 450 and 440 BC. A Boeotian shield and Hercules preparing his bow are engraved on either side. This coin represents the polis Thebes, which, in the wake of the Peloponnesian War in the 370s BC, established itself as the leading power of Greece. Fending off a Spartan invasion in 382 and massacring all but one hundred Spartan hoplites at Leuctra in 371, Thebes positioned itself at the top of Greece’s power structure. It employed a deadly group of one hundred and fifty pairs of hoplite lovers called the Sacred Band of Thebes, and fought under the direction of the brilliant strategist Epaminondas. Thebes’ reign was brief, and ended at Mantinea in 362 when Epaminondas died and a common peace was declared with Sparta. The coin, by introducing the viewer to Thebes, illuminates much of the power dynamics in Greece. For one, it reveals that at one time Greece was volatile enough that a polis relatively unknown to today’s common viewer could take control. The fact that the coin depicts a shield and the warrior Hercules is likewise revealing. Clearly, Thebes had aspirations to ascend the Greek power structure, and sought to portray itself as fierce and militaristic. Coins are commonly minted as propaganda, seeking to convey a message each and every time the people use currency. The message here must be a statement of Thebes’ aspirations, even 75 years before the aforementioned ascendancy in the next century. Finally, the story of Thebes also explains the decline of Sparta, which lost all but one hundred hoplites in 371 and lost its slave population in 370 when Epaminondas freed the helots. This exacerbated the power vacuum in Greece, and paved the way for foreign domination by Macedon and the end of Greek independence. The concluding object is a coin displaying Alexander the Great, depicted as the Egyptian god Zeus Ammon. Alexander himself did not issue this particular coin, which dates to between 286 and 281 BC, but he did issue similar ones when an oracle told him he was the son of Zeus Ammon in 321. As previously mentioned, coins were commonly minted as intentional propaganda. This depiction represents an end to Greek independence and a foreign takeover of the power structure in a few ways. For one, the Macedonian Alexander III, son of Philip II who took control of Greece in 337 through the League of Corinth, was the direct ruler of Greece, crushing a Theban revolt in 335 and employing Greek soldiers on his subsequent conquest of Persia. It is evident now that Macedon, not Persia or any league of Greek poleis, is the most powerful entity in the Mediterranean. Also, the specific depiction of Alexander as an Egyptian god is crucial to understanding Greece’s loss of independence. Although many Macedonians including Philip claimed to be Greek, the rest of Greece did not generally acknowledge this claim. By depicting himself as a god, Alexander solidified a separation between himself and his Greek soldiers, further evidenced by his labeling of Iranian troops as “The Successors”. It is now completely evident that by the late fourth century BC, no Greek polis controls the power structure of Greece, and its independence is lost for hundreds of years. As illustrated by the eight artifacts displayed in this museum, power constantly changed hands throughout Greece’s long history. At no time was Greece governed by one central government, so concept of Greece not existing as a single state is aptly conveyed. Further, with the exception of the Hellenic League created to fight the Persians, poleis often were at odds with each other, and their struggle to wield the most power eventually led to the downfall of Greece as a whole. Hopefully the diversity of power throughout history is likewise expressed by the fact that these eight artifacts were drawn from seven different collections. To an average person uneducated in the Classics, Greece is most likely viewed as a single, expansive state with cities like Athens and Sparta. By visiting this museum, that same person should now be able to equate Greece with a unifying culture, heritage, region, and even set of ideals, rather than a unifying government.

Gold hammered bowl, unknown artist, -3000/-2800, From the collection of: Benaki Museum of Greek Civilization
This hammered gold bowl, dating back to between 3000 and 2800 BC, is estimated to have originated from Makrykapa, Euboea, and most likely belonged to a wealthy Greek during the Early Bronze Age.
Corinthian helmet, Unknown, "circa 550 BC" - "", From the collection of: Museum of Cycladic Art
This Corinthian helmet, dating to circa 500 BC, was one component of the seventy pounds of a hoplite soldier’s armor, along with a breastplate, grieves, and hoplon shield.
Relief of a Spear-Carrier, Unknown, 546 BCE - 482 BCE, From the collection of: Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This relief of a spear-carrier, dating to between 546 and 482 BC, was found in the Persian king Darius’ palace, and depicts an Immortal, one of Persia’s ten thousand most deadly warriors.
Gilded bronze statue of Hercules, IV Century B.C., From the collection of: Musei Capitolini
This gilded bronze statue of Hercules, most likely molded from a Greek statue of the fourth century BC, depicts the warrior hero Hercules to whose divine lineage the Spartans laid claim.
Detail of the east frieze (Block VI)., Pheidias Workshop, 442-438 BC, From the collection of: Acropolis Museum
This detail from a block of the Parthenon in Athens dates to between 442 and 438 BC, and depicts the important Greek gods Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite.
Decrees for Samos., Unknown, 405/4 and 403/2 BC, From the collection of: Acropolis Museum
These decrees for the island Samos date to 405/4 and 403/2 BC, and express Athens’ gratitude for Samos’ allegiance through the end of the Peloponnesian War.
Thebes, stater, Unknown, -0450/-0440, From the collection of: Numismatic Museum
This coin, dating to between 450 and 440 BC, originates from Thebes, and depicts a Boeotian shield on one side and the warrior Hercules preparing his bow on the other.
Coin, 286 - 281 B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
This coin, dating to between 286 and 281 BC, depicts Alexander the Great as the Egyptian god Zeus Ammon, and resembles coins minted by Alexander himself after seeing an Egyptian oracle that told him he was the god’s son.
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This user gallery has been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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