Greek art in Roman, early christian, Byzantine and early medieval currents
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco Invictus

Of course, as in many artistical currents, Greek art has many facets, periods and distinct phases. Generally, when one speaks of Greek art, the classical phase springs to mind, especially as it existed in Athens around the 5th century BC, or the hellenistic era before and after the reign of Alexander the Great in the 4th and the 3rd century before the birth of Christ. It is no surprise that those two phases will influence later artistical currents the most.

This influence is usually best visible in plastic arts and archtecture (both outside and inside), since without doubt a lot of other fine arts such as painting and literature – which actually belongs to another domain that falls beyond the scope of this article – have been lost overtime. That is why it seems best to focus more on the two facets first mentioned. Also, this small tour attempts to deal with more than one domain: style, theme and context will be discussed.

Picture UG0019 shows us the classical model of the three types of columns, friezes and capitals used in Greek art (from the left to the right): the Doric type, named after the Doric Greeks, to which among others the Spartans belonged; the Ionic type, especially used in present day Western Turkey and the Ægean Islands; and eventually the Corinthian type, which was very popular in the later eras of Greek civilisation. Today, the Ionic and Corinthian columns have remained most known.

Picture UG0022 zooms in on a Corinthian capital in detail. As opposed to the more sobre capitals of the other two types, the Corinthian column shows moreornamentive features. This example dates from around 350 BC, and is from Epidauros, also famous for its theatre and sanctemony of Asklepios from the same period.


Bringing back the past to create new art is no invention from the Renaissance; contrarily, the Romans were already masters in synthesising and imitating older examples – in their own terms, named imitatio (imitaiton) and æmulatio (improvement). Therefore, it's no wonder that the Romans, especially in the imperial period, continued the Greek traditions in many ways, especially sculpture and temple building (although it has to be noted that the Etruscans have also contributed in this area). Examples of this influence have been preserved in the area of interior decoration in Pompeii, frozen in time by a tragical disaster.

Dating back from Cæsar's time (1st century before Christ) is a mural from the so-called Villa of Mysteries (UG0033). This is called so, because the walls have depictions of the Dionysian mysteries, a Greek cult of exstasis, imported in Rome through Greek colonies in southern Italy. Next to the obviously Greek theme, there are other Greek style elements: the dramatic (in a sense of drama) depiction is very visible, and in the upper left corner, there's a mask present which the Greeks used to "make-up" their actors with, and which also served as a voice amplifier. The winged figure on the right is strongly resemblant of the hellenistic sculpture of the Winged Victory (Nikh)

From imperial times is the Ixion-room from the House of the Vetii (UG0034), dating from the second half of the first century CE, short before Pompeii was covered in thick layers of ashes. Although the illusionism and the decorative style are typically Roman, the way in which the naked man is depicted shows a strong resemblance to the contraposto from Greek sculpture. Also, the other scenes and mythological scenes are also Greek in nature and character.


The early christian art was strongly hellenised. Christianity radiated from the province of Iudea, where most surrounding territories had Greek as administrational and cultural language. That is why most early christian texts have been written in koinè-Greek and the first Church Fathers wrote in Greek.

It's no wonder then, that the Greeks will influence christian artistical currents. A familiar example is that of a ceiling fresco from a catacomb in the 4th century CE (IMG1186), when christianity was more and more officialised, and showed itself as dominant religion. More time and money became available to decorate the catacombs. Although the theme is obviously christian, the form is Greek (in contrast to the above Roman examples): a young Christ in the middle, carrying a lamb goes back to the Greek archaic art, just like the depictions of animals, and the renewed interest in geometrical forms. The rather hieratic posture of the figures announces the later Byzantine painting- and mural-art.

The most monumental Byzantine building is without doubt the Aya Sofia (built in the 6th century CE under the rule of Iustinianus), the orthodox Church in Byzantium (Konstantinopel) itself. The picture shown here (UG0038) is a capital from the building. In comparison with the detailed picture of the Corinthian capital, the resemblances are striking: the vegetative, ornamentive elements that seem to "grow" out of the column, with a detailed density. The "curls" on the top of the capital are more resemblant of the Ionic style.


Although we have the Byzantine art current, as mentioned above, in the Eastern Empire, the collapsed Western Empire had entered the early Middle Ages. The classical legacy was, in contrast to popular assumption, not as neglected as is usually assumed because of the invasions of the Germans. Of course, the classical traditions will live on the most in the Othonian and Carolingian Renaissance, but then we have already entered the high Middle Ages, and is the actual Renaissance slowly dawning in Italy.

The example chosen here is the basilic of Saint Apollinarius, the first bishop of Ravenna, which is the logical location of the building. It was built in the sixth century, and shows compository resemblances to the Roman basilicæ, which in turn were based on the Greek stoas: long column galleries and/or market places. The picture from the outside (UR0003) shows this regular, symmetrical structure. The tower was only added in later times.

A photograph from the inside (UA0090) shows this principle again, and now we can see the slim columns, that carry the seeds of the eventual development of the simple romanesque columns, and have simplified versions of Corinthian capitals. Other pictures within the basilic have been strongly influenced by the orthodox teachings, and show resemblances to the at that moment developing Byzantine art, which originated from a merge between ancient Greek elements and christian themes, as is discussed above.
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