Brief IdentificationEdit


Crafted between 530 - 520 BCE and approximately 1660 meters in height, the marble statue featured on the left is a Kouros (meaning "nude male youth"), a type of statue which dominated the Archaic period (600 - 480 BCE) of Ancient Greece. [1] Serving as either burial markers or patrons of the gods, during the early Archaic period, kouroi statues were noted for their rigid and lifeless appearance - distinct characteristics of Egyptian art - in that their faces were not only emotionless, but that their arms and legs were straight, the left leg stretched forward. However, over time the style of kouroi statues began to evolve such that by the end of the Archaic period, they displayed a much more naturalistic appearance as emphasis had been placed on both the facial features and body proportions. [2] As well, many were depicted with what historians describe to be a "thin, Archaic smile" [Konstam 2003, 167]. Currently, this Kouros statue, which was excavated from a site in Didyma, Turkey by German archaeologist Theodor Wiegand (1864 - 1936), is housed at the Altes Museum in Berlin.

Technical EvaluationEdit

Hired to serve under the pharaoh Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE), the influx of Greek mercenaries to Egypt led to the formation of Greek settlements and by the mid-seventh century, a strong trading partnership had been established [Boardman 1978, 18]. Today, historians perceive this event as the catalyst for the Oriental style which had largely begun to define Greek sculpture [Boardman 1973, 54]. Initially, Greek sculpture had consisted of wooden, rudimentary statues (xoana), but after having been influenced by Egyptian sculpture, Greek sculpture thus began to assume a monumental identity [Boardman 1973, 54 and 58]. Due to its soft nature, early Greek sculptors utilized limestone as their medium, but given that it was susceptible to erosion, they turned to marble [3] which proved to be an ideal solution considering its abundance on the Aegean islands [Boardman 1973, 57].

Grid System

Unlike the Egyptian sculptors who had only copper tools, Greek sculptors were well-equipped with iron tools - products of the Iron Age - and could therefore quarry and carve large pieces of marble easily by use of iron knives and chisels [Boardman 1978, 19]. In the early stages of sculpting, Greeks sculptors utilized the drill, a tool which not only permitted them to chip away pieces of marble incrementally, but to cut through and create channels as well [Boardman 1978, 19]. However, for delicate features such as the hair, Greek sculptors utilized the flat chisel [Boardman 1978, 19] and in the later stages, a rasp would correct any imperfections (i.e. scratch marks) [Boardman 1978, 80]. 

For determining body proportions, while Egyptian sculptors had devised a standard mathematical grid system which involved transferring "preliminary sketches" onto "unworked blocks" of marble, by contrast, the varying proportions and lack of uniformity among the discovered kouroi statues suggests that Greek sculptors either had an underdeveloped version of the Egyptian grid system or that no such system existed altogether [Boardman 1978, 20]. However, in her academic journal Profiles of Kouroi, archaeologist Eleanor Guralnick, argues that the kouroi statues, regardless of their varying proportions, are similar in that many demonstrate a "general line of evolution...toward an idealized human body" [Guralnick 1985, 399]. As well, some of those evolutionary proportional changes included an "extremely slender waist" and "slender hips" the only anomaly being a slightly larger head [Guralinick 1985, 409].

Local Historical ContextEdit

Towards the end of the Dark Ages (1100 - 800 BCE) and throughout the Archaic period up until the late sixth century, Ancient Greece was a hub of economic growth and political reform [Konstam 2003, 66]. By increasing the production of farming tools, the Iron Age spawned an "agricultural revolution" which successfully catalyzed both trade and Greek colonization - the colonies themselves stretching from the Black Sea to the south of France [Konstam 2003, 60 and 62]. As well, territories which had been governed by feudal-like warlords - basileis - during the Dark Ages provided the foundation for the emergence of the city-state - polis - that would "dominate Greece for the remainder of the ancient period" [Konstam 2003, 59].    

At the beginning of the Archaic period, the basilei - many of whom ruled as "minor kings" - gradually disappeared and power passed into the hands of "small, oligarchic groups" whose members were derived from the aristocracy - aristoi - meaning the "best people" or those with "land and wealth" [Konstam 2003, 66]. The early kouroi statues were commissioned by the aristocracy and they served two purposes, the first being that they reflected the "aristocratic ideals of athletic male prowess" [Boström 2004, 709]. As a result, the statues, some of which were nearly three meters tall [Quinn 2007, 96], were depicted with "long groomed hair; broad shoulders; developed biceps and pectoral muscles; wasp waist; flat stomach; a clear division of torso and pelvis; powerful buttocks and thighs" [Jenkins 2009, 11]. More importantly, considering the fact that the aristocracy was the only group capable of funding such enormous projects, the early kouroi statues were thus indicative of their wealth and power [Boström 2004, 709]. Adding to this pretension, in her academic journal Herms, Kouroi and the Political Anatomy of Athens, historian Josephine Quinn cites that many of the early kouroi statues, in addition to their physical features, were heavily ornamented with jewelry and that some were even depicted holding a handkerchief roll, an item associated with the noble class [Quinn 2007, 96 and 98].     

On that note, as the aristocratic oligarchies grew more powerful, their success attracted the scorn of the mercantile middle class, a group which had emerged as a direct result of the extensive trade networks and colonization [Konstam 2003, 66]. Ultimately, their frustrations stemmed from the oligarchies' incessant wealth extraction and the fact that they were barred altogether from the political sphere [Konstam 2003, 66 and 70]. Consequently, by the mid-seventh century, the aristocratic oligarchies were disbanded and up until the late sixth century, the tyrant became the popular form of government [Konstam 2003, 70]. It was as the Greek philosopher Aristotle had said: "Tyrants appeared as champions of the demos (masses) when the aristocracies became overbearing" [Fleck and Hanssen 2013, 396]. More importantly, although the "golden age of tyranny" was short-lived, a defining feature of the tyrant was his nomination by "popular acclaim" in that the people - not the aristocracy - held the power to choose and tyrants were able to stay in power by appealing to the citizenry at large [Konstam 2003, 71]. Such ideas would prevail even as the tyrant crumbled as a political force, and furthermore, they "laid the foundations for democratic rule" [Konstam 2003, 71].                       

By the early sixth century, Solon (638 - 558), a member of the aristocracy, had grown increasingly concerned with the plight of the poor and he set in motion the political transformation to democracy [Levi 1980, 92]. Renowned for his poetic abilities, Solon was able to effectively capture the sentiments of the poor and he spoke out against the powerful aristocracies: "The leaders of the people have an evil mind, they are ripe to suffer many griefs for their great arrogance; for they know not how to restrain their greed, nor to conduct decently their present joys of feasting" [Haywood 1997, 132]. In 594, Solon was elected archon and he instituted several reforms aimed at improving the conditions of the poor which simultaneously limited the power of the aristocracies. Some of those reforms included the abolisment of "oustanding debt...enslavement [and] serf-bondage" [Levi 1980, 92]. In addition, and perhaps of greatest importance, Solon abolished the "criterion of blood" - a defining feature of the aristocracy - in favor of wealth as a prerequisite for holding public office [Levi 1980, 92].                       

World-Historical SignificanceEdit

The reforms instituted by Solon did not abolish aristocratic influence. On the contrary, many still held public office [Haywood 1997, 134]. However, as was aforementioned, due to the fact that the aristocracy was the only class capable of commissioning kouroi statues, their gradual evolution was indicative of an "ideological conflict" among the aristocracy in which some members chose to deviate from traditional aristocratic ideals [Quinn 2007, 104]. Although this "middling class" of aristocrats continued to identify with certain aristocratic ideals - such as their adoration for the human body - the lack of ornamentation and overall naturalistic appearance which characterized many of the later kouroi statues appeared to suggest that these aristocratic patrons came to value a new ideal: self-control [Quinn 2007, 99 and 100]. Thus, the later kouroi statues embodied a blending of elitist and egalitarian ideals [Quinn 2007, 99]. Furthermore, in the larger scheme of world history, the later kouroi statues should not be perceived as champions of democracy. Rather, the gradual evolution of the kouroi statues was an acknowledgement of the political transformations that largely defined the Archaic period of Ancient Greece.


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Boardman, John. Greek Sculpture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Boström, Antonia. The Encyclopedia of Sculpture, Volume Two: G - O. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004. 

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