November 25, 2015 - April 10, 2016

See more than 500 artifacts from ancient Greece at The Field Museum

Explore epic stories from the perspectives of the ancient Greeks
themselves, including men and women known to us through historical
accounts, mythological tales, and the archaeological record. 

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  1. Female Figurine (Cycladic Sculpture)
    © National Archaeological Museum, Athens

    Female Figurine

    Cycladic Sculpture

    Cycladic figurines are among the most iconic images in Greek archaeology. But exactly who, or what, do they represent? Found on Amorgos, the easternmost island in the Cyclades, this figurine may have been broken at the time of burial.

    Nobody really knows what these [figurines] were used for. We frequently find them in cemeteries, which inherently suggests some sort of ritual connotation used in a funerary ceremony.

    More than 30 islands comprise the Cyclades, an archipelago located southeast of the Greek mainland in the Aegean Sea. Their name—from the Greek for circle or circular—refers to the chain of islands that encircle Delos, an island considered sacred by the ancient Greeks.

    Goddess or Priestess?

    Around 3200 BC, a remarkable culture emerged in the Cyclades, a circle of islands located at the heart of the Aegean Sea. This central location made it ideal for the exchange of goods and ideas; boats connected the Cyclades to Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), mainland Greece, and Crete.

    Control of these maritime trade routes, coupled with the quality of merchandise produced by local artisans, led to the rise of chiefs and a social hierarchy in the Cyclades. The female figurines excavated from wealthier burials represent high-status objects of this society. They were made of marble quarried from different islands in the Cyclades. Because the figurines share a number of features, there must have been cultural exchanges throughout the region.

    The early Cycladic peoples did not use writing, so scholars look to the archaeological record for clues about this Bronze Age culture. (Early scripts appear in Crete and mainland Greece during later time periods.) The majority of figurines found in Cycladic graves are female and nude, strongly suggesting associations with fertility. But scholars disagree on exactly what the sculptures represent: mother-goddesses? priestesses or worshippers? Their exact function and meaning remain a mystery.

  2. “Mask of Agamemnon” (Modern replica of original death mask)
    © Archaeological Museum of Mycenae

    “Mask of Agamemnon”

    Modern replica of original death mask

    This face is one of the most celebrated images of Greek archaeology. German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann ultimately attributed it to Agamemnon, the legendary king of Homer’s Iliad. This one-of-a-kind replica—on exhibit in The Greeks—was produced by artist Emile Gillieron in consultation with Schliemann using ancient techniques.

    The irony is that [Schliemann] finds this gold mask and he says, ‘I've gazed upon the eyes of Agamemnon.’ Well, the Agamemnon that Homer's writing about wouldn't have been this guy because the burial dates to the 16th century BC. If Agamemnon ever existed, he would have lived several hundred years later when the site of Mycenae became the capital of this big complicated Mycenaean state.

    Mycenaean Greece—named for Mycenae, its largest citadel—was divided into local kingdoms based on a hierarchical system led by a king and staffed by a series of bureaucrats. Scribes recorded transactions on clay tablets in Linear B script. With its decipherment and attribution as an early form of the ancient Greek language, Mycenae can be considered the first-known “Greek” culture or civilization.

    Searching for Mythic Warriors

    Legend says that Agamemnon was the first to unite the Greeks in a common cause: avenging the honor of his brother Menelaus, whose wife—the beautiful Helen—had been abducted by a Trojan prince. It is easy to imagine Agamemnon marching his troops through the Lion Gate of Mycenae and off into battle.

    Did he really exist? No one knows for sure. The Greek poet Homer imagined Agamemnon as the lord of Mycenae, long after the citadel itself had fallen to ruin. Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th-century German archaeologist, began excavating at Mycenae in 1875, convinced that the ruins were those of the city ruled by Agamemnon.

    After uncovering a gold funerary mask, Schliemann is believed to have telegrammed the famous words, “I have gazed upon the eyes of Agamemnon.” But a short time later, Schliemann unearthed a second gold mask. Struck by its noble features, he decided he’d been wrong, and that this was the actual mask worn by the Greek hero and conqueror of Troy.

    However, neither of these gold masks could have belonged to Agamemnon. The royal graves existed at least three centuries before the supposed time of the Trojan War. Despite that, Schliemann remains famous for discovering the site of the most powerful—and legendary—city in Bronze Age Greece.

  3. Achilles Avenging Patroclos (oil jar)
    © Archaeological Museum of Delos

    Achilles Avenging Patroclos

    oil jar

    The painting on this oil jar (or lekythos) depicts a scene from Homer's epic poem the Iliad. Here, the Greek hero, Achilles, avenges the death of his friend Patroclos by killing the Trojan leader, Hector.

    [Epic poems] record stories that are a blending of some things that are clearly historical and that have been passed down for… hundreds of years. But they also border on mythology. So it's very difficult in these stories to tell what is history and what is myth. But what we see is, that when they're written down, they continue to have a very big impact on Greek society.

    Although we have no accurate images of Homer from his lifetime, many were created from the fifth through the second centuries BC. This head, depicting the poet in old age, is a Roman copy of a Greek original.

    Portrait of Homer, about 150 AD. © National Archaeological Museum, Athens

    Homer and Heroes

    We know very little about the life of Homer, the greatest epic poet of ancient Greece. Was he poor and blind as legend has suggested? Scholars debate if he was an itinerant minstrel or associated with a powerful court. One thing is certain: his major works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, inspired and influenced generations of storytellers and writers who lived after him.

    Both of these epic poems probably began as oral traditions, which were later written down and attributed to Homer, who lived during the eighth century BC. The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, traditionally dated to the 12th century BC—some 400 years before Homer.

    Homer’s other major work, the Odyssey, is the sequel to the Iliad. It describes the adventures of the Greek hero, Odysseus, who overcame a number of challenges before returning home to the island of Ithaca after the Trojan War. His example of courage and determination continues to inspire us.

    Homer’s epic poems—filled with tales of bravery, love, jealousy, and betrayal—are considered the earliest works of Western literature. They greatly influenced later writers, including Virgil and Dante, who continued the tradition of epic poetry. But Homer’s works also inspired countless novelists and playwrights, where the “hero’s journey” remains central to the narrative plot.

  4. Self-Crowning Athlete (Votive Relief)
    © National Archaeological Museum, Athens

    Self-Crowning Athlete

    Votive Relief

    This sculpture may have been offered in gratitude by an athlete following a victory. It shows a young man placing an olive wreath on his head, a symbol of victory. The “self-crowning athlete” came to represent democracy in ancient Athens where the right to self-governance could be earned through citizenship.

    The Agora was the center of public life in Athens. The name means “gathering place” or “assembly,” and it basically functioned as the city’s town square. It was here that citizens of Athens voted for leaders, participated in athletic contests, and worshipped at important altars and temples.

    Olympians and “Rule by the People”

    Beginning in 776 BC, athletes converged every four years in the Greek city of Olympia to take part in the Olympic Games. At their heart, the games were a religious celebration. The athletes competed to honor Zeus, and a large temple was built for him at Olympia. The games were considered so sacred that violence between Greece’s often-feuding city-states was banned during the competition.

    Although the events changed over time, the most common included running, wrestling, boxing, pankration (mixed martial arts), horse and chariot racing, and the pentathlon (five separate competitions over the course of a single day).

    The winning athlete was crowned champion with a wreath. His exploits might be recounted in poems. His likeness could be carved in stone to memorialize his victories, then dedicated to Zeus at the temple.

    This fragmentary sculpture of the “self-crowning athlete” might actually depict an athlete taking off his wreath and preparing to dedicate it to a god or goddess. But the carving has also been interpreted as a metaphor of the Athenian people who chose to govern themselves through an early system of democracy—in essence, to crown themselves as their own leaders and determine their own destinies. It is an ideal that lives on today in our own system of government and rule by the people.

  5. Offering to Asklepios (Votive Relief)
    © National Archaeological Museum, Athens

    Offering to Asklepios

    Votive Relief

    Asklepios, god of medicine, leans on his staff, around which a snake is coiled. Accompanied by his children, he receives the tributes of mortals (smaller in size) whom he has cured. This type of object was placed in sanctuaries dedicated to the god.

    The snake-entwined staff carried by Askelpios is a symbol of medicine. Its exact meaning and symbolism is debated, but one interpretation is that the snake represents renewal and rejuvenation, a kind of “sloughing off sickness” as a snake sheds its skin. The Rod of Asklepios is often confused with the caduceus—two snakes wrapped around a winged staff—a symbol of commerce carried by the Greek god Hermes.

    Philosopher Physicians

    During Greece’s Classical period, the citizens of Athens challenged conventional wisdom and presented the Western world with philosophy, theater, art, science—and medicine.

    To care for people suffering from illnesses, the Athenians built an asklepeion, or healing temple, dedicated to the Greek god of medicine, Asklepios. Here, patients spent the night in a dormitory—a precedent of today’s hospitals—and were treated for a variety of illnesses.

    Physicians practiced under guidelines established by Hippocrates, often called “the father of Western medicine.” Hippocrates separated the discipline of medicine from religion, believing and arguing that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the gods, but rather the product of environmental factors, diet, and living habits.

    Hippocrates also established ethical and professional guidelines for physicians, including the hippocratic oath, a version of which modern-day doctors still follow. The original oath began with this pledge:

    I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asklepios the surgeon, likewise Hygeia and Panacea, and call all the gods and goddesses to witness, that I will observe and keep this underwritten oath, to the utmost of my power and judgment.

    The legacy of ancient Greek medicine continues today with medical terms derived from the Greek language: hygienic, epidemic, and chronic to name just a few.

  6. Alexander as the God Pan (Sculpture)
    © Archaeological Museum of Pella

    Alexander as the God Pan

    Sculpture

    This small masterpiece is probably inspired by the early statues of Alexander by Lysippus, the famous Greek sculptor. Here the king is portrayed as an idealized model of male beauty, but also as a deity. The small horns on either side of his forehead suggest that he represents Pan, god of wildlife.

    This is a representation of Alexander as Pan. Even though it's smaller than you’d think, it's actually really cool. It's clearly a depiction of Alexander based on the face and the pose. And it’s got horns, which indicates that this is yet another depiction of Alexander as a god, in this case, Pan, the goat-like god of wildlife.

    This youthful portrait of Alexander incorporated both realistic and idealized features. A number of details, supported by rare physical descriptions of Alexander from ancient writings, make it possible to recognize him:
    1. the slight tilt of his head,
    2. the arrangement of his hair,
    3. his lack of beard which differentiated him from other rulers of the time,
    4. and his upward glance.

    Portrait of Alexander, Pella, fourth century BC. © Archaeological Museum of Pella

    Conquerors, Rulers, and Gods

    It was a major turning point in history. Philip II of Macedon unified Greece through a series of military victories, diplomatic alliances, and seven marriages. Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, would go even further. Conquering a large portion of the ancient world, he was seen as a god, and would be immortalized for all time.

    Alexander was only 20 when his father was assassinated. Thanks, however, to his education under the Greek philosopher Aristotle and his training in the formidable Macedonian army, he was ready to lead. Within a single generation the ancient world was transformed as Alexander the Great conquered nations to create a vast, multi-ethnic empire.

    During the course of his conquests, Alexander founded many cities—one of the most famous being Alexandria, Egypt—as bases of military control, but also as centers of Greek language, learning, and culture. It was through these cities that Greek civilization was disseminated through much of the known world.

    Alexander called himself a son of Zeus, and many of his portraits depict him as a demi-god. Several portraits were produced by important painters and sculptors during Alexander’s lifetime and even after his death. Alexander’s political successors used copies of his image to associate themselves with the conqueror’s legend, power, and supposed divinity.