Art and Politics:
Archaic Period: 750- 480BC (writing to Persian War)
There are political, economic and artistic developments in this period. The most important
political development is the rise of the polis and the invention of politics. The polis is a city state,
made up of the city and surrounding land to make up a single, self-governing political unit. It is a
state the side of a city. These poleis would mint their own coins. Each city had their own
currency and their own weights and measures. They had their own laws and religious festivals.
Each one had its own domestic policy. There is a lot of diversity in the structure of the poleis.
Athens was a democracy; Sparta was a monarchy with two kings. They also decided their own
Greek history is a constant shift between the poleis working together and going to war against
each other. In certain periods, they would come together in a Pan-Hellenic effort. When there is
no outside threat, they would tend to fight each other.
There was a change in political mentality, and the mentality of people as a whole. In Mycenaean
time, we don’t hear a lot about the People, but they likely identified with their king. This
continued to a certain extent in the Dark Age, even though the communities became much
smaller. In Homer, there is a sense of the demos (the people) but they are defined by their
loyalty to the king. At the end of the Dark Ages, all of the little communities start to merge
together into the polis. They start to develop a much stronger central political identity. They start
to be identified by their polis rather than their leader. For the first time, we have a sense of
political community and identity. People start to feel like citizens of a shared polis.
Not all poleis were democracies. They did not necessarily have democracy, but it was still
different from the Mycenaean period in that the people had a political identity separate from their
monarch. They have a sense of shared responsibility.
Alcaeus envisions the polis as a ship. It imagines the polis as a unity, or a collective enterprise
in which everyone plays a part. There might be disagreement over who should steer and where
to go, but if people don’t work together and do their part, it will sink. There is a fundamental
change in how people see themselves and their relationship to others. There is a new sense of
community and belonging. In Athens, every citizen had a share in the polis.
However, not everyone was a citizen. Every polis had different laws about citizenship. In Athens,
women were not citizens. Their only share in the polis was through their male kin and religious
rites. Foreigners were also not citizens. In many poleis there was also a slave class who were
not citizens. But within the group of citizens, everyone was an equal. The polis is a new human
identity. Man is a political animal. The polis is the natural habitat of humanity.
We see these changes reflected in a change of warfare. Homer’s epics were mostly about the
prowess of individuals. People are fighting for their own individual time^ rather than any
common cause. In the Archaic period we start to see the rise of a new kind of warfare. We start
to see people fighting in a more corporate, collective way. It is known as hoplite warfare. Your
shield would cover the left side of your body and the right side of the person next to you. You would use your spear over it. In order for this to work, everyone must work together. This kind of
warfare gives rise to a new definition of bravery and heroism. The ideal becomes cooperation
rather than individual glory. You need to stand firm, shoulder to shoulder. There are no individual
heroes. You’re fighting for the kleos and time^ of your polis and, like citizens, everyone in the
phalanx is equal. It is, however, and exclusive group. In order to join, you need to be able to buy
your own hoplon (shield).
Hoplite warfare also gives a certain amount of emphasis to the individual. In the Iliad, everyone
who isn’t a hero is part of the faceless mob. In the phalanx, it is every individual who makes up
the group. The polis, even as it strengthens communal identity, it gives identity to each
individual. The Archaic period art starts to reflect this. There is a new form of art: individual
statues of normal people. There is a kind of equality to them but also individuality. They tend to
be found at grave sites. They might be idealized representations of aristocratic youths and
maybe even commemorating dead individuals. These might represent this same movement
We see the same thing in vases. There is an innovation in vase painting. There is a shift from
black figure to red figure. Black figure is made by painting the figures in a different type of clay
and the firing the clay. The different clay becomes black and you scratch out the detail in the
figure you want. In the later archaic period they did the same thing but reversed