12 Treasures of Ancient Greece

Tristan Hughes

6 mins

08 Feb 2019

The art and architecture of ancient Greece continues to captivate many to this day. Its countless monuments and statues, created with breathless beauty and intricate detail over 2,000 years ago, have inspired several civilisations since: from their contemporary Romans to the emergence of Neoclassicism in the mid-18th century.

Here are 12 treasures of ancient Greece:

1. The Colossus of Rhodes

In 304/305 BC the city of Rhodes was in crisis, besieged by the mightiest military force of the time: a 40,000 strong army commanded by Demetrius Poliorcetes, a famous Hellenistic warlord.

Yet despite being heavily outnumbered, the Rhodians defiantly resisted and eventually forced Demetrius to sue for peace.

In honour of their achievement, they constructed a magnificent monument: the Colossus of Rhodes. Covered in bronze, this statue depicted the sun god helios and dominated the entrance to Rhodes’ harbour.

It was the tallest statue in antiquity – similar in height to the Statue of Liberty – and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The statue stayed standing for 54 years, until it collapsed in 226 BC because of an earthquake.

An artist’s drawing of the Colossus of Rhodes by the harbour of the city in the 3rd century BC.

2. The Parthenon

To this day the Parthenon remains the nucleus of Athens and epitomises the marvels of classical Greek civilisation. It was constructed during the city’s golden age during the mid 5th century BC, when it was the epicentre of a powerful Aegean empire.

Constructed out of white marble, mined from the nearby Mount Pentelikon, the Parthenon housed a mountainous chryselephantine (gold and ivory overlaid) statue of Athena Parthenos, created by the famous sculptor Phidias.

The building was designed for splendour; in antiquity it housed the Athenian treasury but it has served various other functions over the past two millennia.

In its long history it served as an orthodox church, a mosque and a gunpowder magazine. The latter of these uses proved a recipe for disaster that came to fruition in 1687, when a Venetian mortar round blew up the magazine and destroyed much of the building.

In the first of this three-part series, we explore the “Great Awakening’ in 5th century Greece, and examine how this process became the source of Western Civilisation. Exclusive to History Hit TVWatch Now

3. The Erechtheum

Although the Parthenon dominates Athens’ Acropolis, it was not the most important building on that rocky outcrop. That title belonged to the Erechtheum.

Iconic in its design, the Erechtheum housed some of the most important religious objects in Athens: the olive wood statue of Athena, the tomb of Cecrops – legendary founder of Athens – the spring of Poseidon and the olive tree of Athena.

Given its religious importance and that it housed the most sacred statue of Athena, it was at the Erechtheum, not the Parthenon, that the famous Panathenaic procession ended.

A view of the iconic Erechtheum (Erechtheion), particularly its famous Karyatids.

4. The Kritios Boy

As the Archaic Age (800-480 BC) ended and the Classical Period (480-323 BC) began, Greek artists were rapidly moving away from stylised creations towards realism, best epitomised by the Kritios Boy.

Dating to c.490 BC, it is one of the most perfected, realistic statues of antiquity.

It depicts a youth in a more relaxed and naturalistic pose – a style called contrapposto that would go on to define the art of the Classical Period.

Today it can be seen at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Glass beads originally formed the eyes of the Kritios Boy. Credit: Marsyas / Commons.

5. The Delphic Charioteer

The Delphic Charioteer, a life-size statue of a chariot driver, was found at the sanctuary in 1896 and is widely considered one of the finest examples of ancient bronze sculpture.

The statue’s accompanying inscription survives, revealing that it was dedicated by Polyzalus, the Greek tyrant of a prestigious city on Sicily’s southern shoreline, to honour a victor in the Pythian Games in 470 BC.

Today it is on display in the Delphi Museum.

A zoomed in shot of the Delphic Charioteer, one of the best surviving examples of what is now known as the ‘severe style’ of Greek art. From the documentary, The Treasures of Athens and Olympia: Christianity and NeoclassicismWatch Now

6. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was the most prestigious religious site in ancient Hellenic culture: ‘the Bellybutton of the Greek World.’

At the sanctuary’s heart was the Temple of Apollo, home to the famous Oracle and its priestess, the Pythia. She famously delivered divine riddles, said to be sent by Dionysius himself, to many notable Greeks seeking counsel throughout the centuries.

The Temple of Apollo remained a site of Pagan pilgrimage until 391 AD, when it was destroyed by early Christians after Theodosius I outlawed Paganism.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was believed to be the centre of the Mediterranean World. Discover more about the wonders of ancient Greece in the series, The Treasures of Athens and Olympia, on History Hit TVWatch Now

7. The theatre of Dodona

The Oracle of Apollo made Delphi the most important religious sanctuary in the Greek World – but it was not the only one.

To the northwest, in Epirus, was the oracle of Zeus at Dodona – second only to Delphi in prestige and importance.

Like Delphi, Dodona had similarly splendorous religious buildings, but its greatest treasure had a secular purpose: the theatre.

It was constructed in c.285 BC during the reign of Pyrrhus, king of the most powerful tribe in Epirus. Its construction was part of a much larger project undertaken by Pyrrhus to ‘Hellenise’ his kingdom. The theatre at Dodona was the pinnacle of this project.

Panorama of the theatre of Dodona, the modern village Dodoni and the snow-capped Mount Tomaros are visible in the background. Credit: Onno Zweers / Commons.

8. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

Inside Olympia’s sacred precinct was the Temple of Zeus, a large, Doric-styled, traditional temple, constructed in the early 5th century BC.

The Temple’s centre attraction was a 13-metre-tall, chryselephantine statue of Zeus, king of the gods, seated on his throne. Just like the enormous chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos inside the Parthenon, it was designed by Phidias.

This statue was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World.

An artistic impression of the Statue of Zeus.

9. Nike of Paionios

Nike was commemorated at the close of the 5th century BC, to celebrate the Athenian recapturing of Sphacteria from the Spartans (425 BC) during the Peloponnesian War.

The statue depicts the winged goddess Nike (Victory) descending to the ground from the sky – a split second before she lands. Her draperies billow out behind her, blown by the wind, balancing the statue and evoking both elegance and grace.

Nike of Paionios. Credit Carole Raddato / Commons.

10. The Philippeon

The Philippeon was constructed within Olympia’s sacred precinct by King Philip II of Macedonia, following his conquest of southern Greece in 338 BC.

Circular in its design, inside it were five ivory and gold statues of Philip and his family, including his Molossian wife Olympias and their legendary son Alexander.

The Philippeon is famous as being the only temple inside Olympia’s religious sanctuary that is dedicated to a human, rather than a deity.

The final part of the series examines how Greek artists put human beings at the centre “of all things” and began to portray the human form in a realistic rather than stylistic way. Watch Now

11. The Theatre at Epidaurus

Of all the theatres of ancient Greece, none can trump the 4th century theatre of Epidaurus.

The theatre is situated within the sacred sanctuary to Asclepius, Greek god of medicine. To this day the theatre remains in stunning condition, attracting visitors from far and wide because of the unbeatable quality of its acoustics.

At full capacity, it could hold some 14,000 spectators – nearly the equivalent of Centre Court at Wimbledon today.

12. The Riace Warriors / Bronzes

The sublime skill and beauty of Greek art was not lost on the Romans. Following their conquest of Greece, they transported many pieces back to Italy via ship.

Some of these cargo ships never made it to Italy however, wrecked in storms and sending their precious cargoes to the bottom of the sea.

In 1972, in the sea near Riace in southern Italy, Stefano Mariottini – a chemist from Rome – made an amazing discovery when he found two realistic bronze statues on the seabed while snorkelling.

The pair of statues depicted two bearded Greek warrior heroes or Gods, who originally carried spears: the Riace Warriors. The bronzes date to the mid 5th century BC.

Like the Delphic charioteer, the Riace Warriors are another of the finest examples of ancient Bronze sculpture – original works of the highest quality.

A photo of one of the Riace Bronzes / Warriors. His left hand originally held a spear. Credit: Luca Galli / Commons.