ART 414 / CLA 414 / HLS 414: Hellenistic Art

Nov. 9, 2022

ART 414 / CLA 414 / HLS 414: Hellenistic Art: Visual Cultures of the Greater Greek world, East and West, 330–30 BCE (HA)

“For me, most exciting are the interactions of Hellenistic visual cultures we see in extraordinary recent finds from Macedonia and Afghanistan, at opposite ends of the Hellenistic world.” – Professor Bert Smith

The conquest of Asia from Anatolia to Afghanistan by Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great) brought far-reaching changes in both the East and the West of the ancient world. Powerful new visual styles and techniques interacted with local ideas and visual cultures in complicated and unpredictable ways.

The seminar aims to describe this vital period of ancient visual history and its complex, multi-stranded artistic cultures. It also aims to embody a method of investigating cultural history through material and visual evidence—a method in which figured artifacts are first re-sited in their contexts of discovery and within the mental horizons of those making and using them. The course follows the material on the ground and its archaeological and historical contexts very closely through a close-grained archaeology of ancient visual systems. The resulting history, created by images, objects, and monuments, represents a separate strand of historical production that sits in interesting counterpoint with text-based history.

The grand Macedonian-Hellenic experiment in Asia did not last much beyond the second century B.C.E., but it is, of course, no less engaging for that. The wide range of intercultural material from Bactria, Iran, Babylonia, Syria, and Egypt is full of interesting perspectives for the modern world, for cultural polyphony and cross-bred artifactual production. To the West, the styles and effects embodied in Macedonian products had a deep impact in Roman Italy and long into the imperial period. The second and first centuries B.C.E. saw the first prolonged exposure to and direct reception and appropriation of eastern Greek-style material goods, and there is a fascinating and complicated story to tell of borrowed visual strategies re-purposed to express new ideas.

The course follows four main themes: (1) the striking new evidence from Macedonia itself and the new royal image; (2) the distinctive visual culture of the old Greek city-states and their buildings and statues; (3) the interaction with local visual systems in both Asia and Egypt; and (4) how the whole apparatus and technology of Greek-style material and visual culture was re-deployed in Italy and Rome. Emphasis is placed on new material and newly excavated sites, and on demonstrating a method for using this evidence to create fresh narratives. Emphasis is also placed on the unbroken continuity between the Greek and Roman periods, on the continuous reformulation of a common visual repertoire by Macedonians, Babylonians, Bactrians, Egyptians, and Romans. 

ART 414 / CLA 414 / HLS 414 course details