Ancient Greeks’ National Identity Through Their Literature & Architecture Essay

The 5th century was considered to be a vitally important period for the Greeks, which was related to their establishment of their national identity, at the same time opposing themselves to “barbarians”. The Persian invasion of 480-479 BC played an important role for this process. This period turned out to be utterly crucial for reconsideration of the values for the Greeks, opposing them against the Persian imperial monarchy. Political and social identity was highly appreciated by the Greek, and gradually they learnt to develop it, which could be perfectly traced during studies of their famous masterpieces of literature and architecture.

The researchers state that the Greeks during that historical period could be characterized as rational and seeking for democracy, whereas the Persians were happy to serve to their king and completely obey him.  Herodotus in this writings devoted a lot of attention to characterizing of the Greeks. In the well-known dialogue between the former Spartan king – Demaratus and Xerxes – the Persian king Herodotus explained, what freedom meant to the Greeks and why it was so much appreciated by them: “For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do” (Immerwahr 1985). Xerxes aimed at getting as much as possible information about the Greeks before fighting with them, thus Demaratus told him about the meaning of the law for the Greek, as the basis courage source. At the same time he underlined the social unity of the Spartans – who were actually usual people, if to consider each individual separately, but their solidarity and unity had an enormous strength. Herodotus also described the Scythians, contrasting them to the Greeks and at the same time playing an important role for the formation of the Greeks’ civilization. Certainly the books by Herodotus could not be considered as purely historical narration; still they remain one of the important sources of the information about the Greeks.

The theme of the Persian Wars was investigated in the literature and played an important role for understanding of the Greeks identity formation.  “The Persians” is a famous tragedy, written by Aeschylus, which is considered to be one of the oldest plays in the whole history of theatre. The uniqueness of this play – was the presentation of contemporary events, which signifies its historical and cultural meaning. The narration is related to one of the episodes of the Greco-Persian Wars. There was no agreement upon the key message of the play, as the critics could not decide whether the author was revealing sympathy towards defeated Persians, or rather fascinating the glory of the Greeks, who won the battle. At any rate, this play could be without any doubts considered the one, related to the presentation of the Greeks’ identity and glory, presenting them as a nation, which united for the one single aim.

One of the greatest architectural reflections of the Greeks’ culture was the world famous temple the Parthenon. Its historical and cultural values are not related to the engineering innovations in its construction. Rather its stylistic conventions play a vitally important role for the whole classical architecture, having a long-term impact upon further development of architecture. The Parthenon is considered by most researchers to be epitomizing of the Greeks’ ideals, as the nation, appreciating its cultural and social identity. This architectural masterpiece is the reflection of the idealisms of the Greeks, of their great attention, paid to the smallest details, of their ability to mathematical representation of the connections to the natural world, finally underlining their alienation from the barbarians. All these characteristics of the Greeks could be read form the presentation of the ideal proportion of the building, they managed to create, their application of the sophisticated architectural elements and statues. A lot of the details of the Parthenon were later widely used for construction of the other Greek temples, which certainly signifies the cultural and historical meaning of this building. The smallest details in the architecture of the Parthenon had practical meaning along with visual appeal. Irrespective of the ideal geometric structure of the Parthenon, there are no absolutely straight lines. “The columns of the peristyle taper on a slight arc as they reach the top of the building giving the impression that they are swollen from entasis (tension) – as if they were burdened by the weight of the roof; a subtle feature that allots anthropomorphic metaphors to other wise inanimate objects” (Hurwit 2005).

Overall, having studied the well-known masterpieces of the Greek art, it is possible to conclude, that the Greek people were really proud of their cultural and social identity, they opposed themselves to the barbarians, being civilized and striving for democracy, as the key element of any highly civilized society. Thus seeing usual people, depicted at the Parthenon frieze, it is natural to realize, how highly they appreciated every person, as a significant entity of the whole nation.


Works cited:

Aeschylus. Persians. Trans. Janet Lembke and C. J. Herington. Greek Tragedy in New Translations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981

Hurwit, J. M. “The Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia”. University of Texas Press. 2005

Immerwahr, H.R. ‘Herodotus’, in The Cambridge History of Classical Greek Literature: Greek Literature, P. Easterling and B. Knox (eds), Cambridge University Press. 1985

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