included foot, horse and chariot races galore. Greek soldiers customarily raced
into battle (which took the Persians aback at Marathon), and so one grueling
foot race at Olympia was run fully armed. Boxing favored the biggest men: it
allowed no division into weight classes, no rests between rounds and no hitting
below the neck; decisions were by knockout or TKO only. The pankration was even
more savage: a bare-handed fight with no holds barred. If our professional
wrestlers were in earnest (perish the thought!), their performances would be
just like those in the pankration. More popular, at least among the
participants, was a form of wrestling that stressed agility, the object being
not to maim or even pin one's man, but simply to throw him. At the apex of the
games stood its most demanding contest, the pentathlon, which combined
wrestling with four other events: discus, javelin, broad jump and sprint. Only
a man who swept all five events of the pentathlon, it was said, merited a
statue. For, until the days of their decline, the Greeks believed that only an
all-round athlete, superior in every respect, could be truly godlike, and they
meant their monuments to honor not just men, but gods.
For the ancients,
art and athletics were but two sides of a single blessing granted by the gods.
Homer's famous descriptions of Achilles' shield and Alcinous' palace prove the
Greeks to have been lovers of fine things right from the start. Theirs was a
nation blessed with brilliant artisans in bronze, ivory, silver and gold. But
Greece appears to have produced no full-scale statues until the seventh century
B.C., when Egypt taught her how. The Pharaoh Psammetichos had invited the
Greeks to build a trading center, Naucratis, on the delta of the Nile.
Exploring the ancient land from there, the Greek visitors were greatly
impressed with Egypt's monumental carvings in stone. Back home they
commissioned their own ivory carvers to make similar things in native
The two marbles
and four bronzes shown herewith are all Greek originals superb in quality. Such
a selection would not have been possible 50 years ago, when students had to
make do for the most part with Roman copies or pieces of the same.
(Masterpieces are inimitable; they cannot be copied successfully.) These
originals are all in good condition, furthermore, except that one lacks an arm.
Most of them were discovered in Greece in our time, thanks to modern
The first results
of the Greeks' attempts to emulate the great sculpture they had seen in Egypt
were statues of the so-called Kouros (Youth) type. The best of these, shown on
page 49, was discovered on the island of Melos and now stands in the Athens
museum. The bare marble in gray museum light unfortunately gives but a faded
notion of the vanished reality, for once it stood outdoors, stained plum-red
and waxed. Eyes, lips and hair were painted also, in primary colors appropriate
to the brilliant Greek sunshine.
If the statue's
debt to Egyptian models is obvious, so are its Greek innovations. In Egypt only
slaves went naked. By contrast, this aristocratic figure is entirely nude.
Secondly, the storied "archaic smile" illuminates the statue, as if it
were bringing good news from the happy gods. Finally, the Egyptian set rule of
human proportions has been thrown overboard to produce a younger, stronger,
springier, deeper-breathing, more athletic figure.
It makes one
think of Pindar's prayer for foot racers: "Grant them with feet so light to
pass through life!"
Sculptors of the
next century, the sixth, excelled at bas-relief. Prize examples at Athens,
which at one time adorned the pedestals of statues long since lost, depict a
Rugbylike scrimmage with a small ball, wrestling and something the books call
hockey although it probably was lacrosse.
Strange as it may
seem, the ancients played a kind of lacrosse long before the North American
Indians reinvented it. A classical writer described the game: "Each player
has in his right hand a racket ending in a sort of flat bend whose center is
woven with gut plaited like a net. Each side strives to be the first to drive
the ball to the opposite end of the ground from its own." In the bas-relief
shown here the carver shows the rackets in profile only, like the faces of the
players themselves, because he has not the trick of presenting such things
frontally. The illusion of deep space also was lacking from sixth century
bas-relief: action took place laterally on a narrow stage. The limitation made
for artistic unity on the whole, but problems of perspective did arise.
When in doubt,
the artists of the period invariably fell back on handsome, semi-abstract
conventions. Unable to carve hair as it actually grows and flows, they settled
for beehive or helmetlike approximations. Landscape they simply ignored, but
the flat backgrounds of their bas-reliefs were painted to represent the sky.
The art of these bas-reliefs mingles poetry and prose: precise conventions
clashing with exact descriptions. Not until the succeeding century, the golden
age of Greek sculpture, did the two merge perfectly.
The Charioteer on
page 52 is all that remains of a life-size bronze that once included the
chariot and four horses besides. In ancient times as now, the men who raced
fast horses were less honored than the men who owned them: racing has always
been the sport of kings, or millionaires, and it was one such victor who
commissioned this thank offering to Apollo. He brought it to the treasury of
the god at Delphi, where it remains today. The figure is complete except for
one arm. The remaining hand still clutches the reins of the horses—which must
have been wrenched free by some fur-clad barbaric invader. The horses and
chariot, doubtless, were melted down in a dark age to make armor, bullets or
pots. By some miracle the figure, a revelation in itself, was spared.