Primary History

Ancient Greeks: Arts and theatre

  • Greek theatre

    Most Greek cities had a theatre. It was in the open air, and was usually a bowl-shaped arena on a hillside. Some theatres were very big, with room for more than 15,000 people in the audience.

    All the actors were men or boys. Dancers and singers, called the chorus, performed on a flat area called the orchestra. Over time, solo actors also took part, and a raised stage became part of the theatre. The actors changed costumes in a hut called the "skene". Painting the walls of the hut made the first scenery.

    The plays were comedies (funny, often poking fun at rulers) or tragedies (sad and serious, with a lesson about right and wrong).

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  • What were Greek plays like?

    Greek actors wore masks, made from stiffened linen, with holes for eyes and mouth. Actors also wore wigs. They wore thick-soled shoes too, to make them look taller, and padded costumes to make them look fatter or stronger. The masks showed the audience what kind of character an actor was playing (sad, angry or funny). Some masks had two sides, so the actor could turn them round to suit the mood for each scene.

    The best actors and play writers were awarded prizes - a bit like the Hollywood Oscars and BAFTAs today. The most famous writers of plays were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides for tragedy and Aristophanes for comedy.

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  • Greek statues

    Greek sculptors made figures of people and gods. Statues were set up outdoors in towns and inside temples. A statue lasts much longer than a painting, especially when made of a hard stone, such as marble. There were also statues made of wood and bronze (a kind of metal).

    Over time Greeks made their statues more lifelike - gods look like human beings. There are figures of people without clothes, and statues of athletes in action (a discus thrower, for example). The Romans collected Greek statues and made copies of them. Many later artists imitated the Greek styles too.

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  • Architecture

    The Greeks believed that architecture (the art of making buildings) was based on mathematical principles. They built beautiful temples. Temple roofs were held up by stone columns and decorated with friezes with carved stone figures. In the British Museum in London, you can see some figures from the Parthenon in Athens. They are known as the "Elgin Marbles".

    There were three styles or "orders" of columns in Greek architecture: called Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Because many architects copied Greek styles, you can see much later buildings (from the 18th and 19th centuries for example) which look "Greek".

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  • Pottery

    The Greeks made pots from clay. They made small pottery bowls and cups for drinking, middle-sized pots for carrying and cooking, elegant vases for decoration, and large jars for storing wine and foods. Potters in the city states of Corinth and Athens made beautiful pottery. They used a watery clay mixture to make figures or decoration on the clay before it was hard. When the pot was baked in a kiln, the areas painted with the clay mixture turned black. Unpainted areas turned red-brown.

    Black animal figures are typical of Corinthian pottery. Greek potters also made pottery decorated with red figures on a black background.

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  • Arts festivals and the Oracle

    The arts, such as music, singing and poetry, played a part in Greek festivals. The Pythian Games took place near Delphi every four years. Winners got prizes, just like winning athletes.

    Delphi was famous for its Oracle. Here Greeks believed the sun-god Apollo answered questions about the future. People came to put questions to the priestess of Apollo. She was called the Pythia. She gave Apollo's answers in a strange muttering voice. What she said often had two or more meanings, so it was hard to say the Oracle was ever wrong.

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Fun Facts
  • The legendary founder of Corinth was Sisyphus. As punishment for his wickedness, he had forever to push a heavy stone uphill; at the top, it always rolled down again.

  • There were lots of deaths in Greek plays. But murders and other killings almost always happened off-stage, out of sight of the audience.

  • Masks worn by Greek actors had large mouth-holes. The holes helped make the actors' voices louder.

  • Most Greek temples faced east, towards the rising sun.

  • A temple had a statue inside. All the ceremonies, sacrifices and so on went on outside.

  • Most Greek statues were painted in bright colours to make them more lifelike.

  • Pictures on vases show comic actors. One picture shows two men dressed like a modern pantomime horse - playing the part of a centaur.

  • Potters made small perfume pots. Men and women in Greece used perfume.

  • Stone statues lasted longer than bronze (metal) one, which were often melted down.

  • It took about a year to carve a life-size figure from a block of marble.

  • Each type of Greek pot had its own name and style. A krater was a mixing bowl, a lekythos was an oil jar.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
[AB-buh-KUS} Beads on a wire or wood frame used for counting and doing sums.
Acropolis
[a-CROP-olis] The Acropolis is a large hill in the centre of Athens. On top of it were many temples and other buildings, the remains of which can still be seen today
archaeologist
Expert in studying the past from remains left by people.
archer
Person who used a bow and arrow.
architect
A person who designs buildings.
Aristophanes
[aris-TOF-a-neez] Lived from about 450 to 385 BC. He wrote comedy plays comedies for the theatre in Athens.
Aristotle
[aris-TOT-ull] Lived from 384 to 322 BC. A scientist and philosopher.
artefact
Anything made by people. Artefacts found by archaeologists include broken pottery, bits of wood and metal, brick and stone.
Athena
The patron goddess of Athens, and goddess of wisdom. A huge statue of Athena stood inside the Parthenon in Athens.
Athens
The capital city of modern Greece. In ancient times Athens was a powerful city-state with its own government, laws, army and navy.
Attica
[A-tik-a] The region around Athens.
cavalry
Soldiers riding on horses.
centaur
Mythical creature with a horse's lower body and legs, but the chest, arms and head of a man. Centaurs were wild and unruly, but one named Chiron was wise and skilled in healing.
citizen
In Athens a citizen was a person with the right to take part in the assembly, serve on juries and take a turn as a member of the ruling council. Only male Athenians were allowed citizen rights.
city-state
Ancient Greek cities had their own governments, laws and armies. The city and the land it controlled around it made up the city-state.
colony (colonies)
An overseas settlement. The Greeks set up colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
column
A tall cylinder-shaped support for the roof or doorway to a building. There were three styles of columns in Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
comedy (comedies)
A play written to make the audience laugh. In the Greek theatre comedies poked fun at the foolishness of people and especially politicians.
Corinth
[COH-rinth] A city-state in southern Greece, famous for its pottery and overland ship-track. Someone or something from Corinth is known as Corinthian.
crest
Raised decoration on a soldier's helmet, like a ridge. On Greek helmets, the crest was made of stiff horsehair.
death penalty
Punishment for a serious crime, such as murder. The person found guilty was executed (killed).
Delphi
[DEL-fee] A city to the west of Athens, withthe famous Oracle of Delphi. People went to consult the Oracle for advice from the gods.
democracy
A system of government in which citizens can vote to decide things. Athens had democracy from 510 BC.
discus
Flat dish-shaped object thrown by an athlete, a bit like a Frisbee only smaller and heavier.

E to G

factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
ferryman
A boatman who takes people across a river or lake in a boat called a ferry.
frieze
Decoration around the top of a wall or building.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
gorgon
Monsters with wings and hair made of snakes. The gorgon Medusa could turn people to stone.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

Helot
A slave who worked for a Spartan master.
historian
Someone who writes about, and studies, the past, especially from writings left by earlier people.
hoplite
[HOP-light] A Greek foot soldier. Hoplites carried round shields and long spears and had bronze helmets and leg guards.
Homer
Said to be the author of the two long poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, but nothing is really known about him.
isthmus
Narrow strip of land with sea either side.
javelin
A long spear for throwing.
jury
In a law court, the people who listen to evidence and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.
kiln
Oven heated by wood, charcoal or some other burning fuel for 'firing' (heating and hardening) clay pots.

M to O

Macedonia
State in the north of Greece, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
Marathon
Battle between the Greeks and Persians.
mosaic
Picture-decoration made from small coloured tiles.
Olympic Games
A religious festival held in honour of Zeus, attended by people from all over Greece.
oracle
A religious custom where people asked the Oracle questions or sought advice. The Oracle was supposed to give the answers of the gods.

P to S

pankration
[pan-KRAT-ion] A type of wrestling with almost no rules; one of the Olympic events.
Parthenon
[PARTH-en-on] A huge temple on top of the Acropolis hill in Athens.
Pericles
[PER-i-kleez] A popular leader of Athens from 458 - 429 BC. Pericles was famous for his stirring public speeches.
Persia
An empire to the east of Greece, ruled by kings. Persia tried to invade Greece. Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
phalanx
Greek fighting formation, made up of ranks of foot soldiers.
philosopher
A person who thinks and writes about the meaning of life and how people live.
pirate
Sea robber. There were many pirate ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at the time of the Ancient Greeks.
Plato
Lived from about 428 to 348, he was a philosopher and teacher in Athens.
politician
Person active in politics - the business of governing a city or country.
pottery
Useful containers such as bowls, dishes, plates and mugs made from soft clay that is baked hard in an oven called a kiln.
ram
In warfare, a pointed weapon for battering holes in walls or ships. Greek warships had rams fixed to their front ends or prows.
Roman
Roman means "of Rome" or a person from Rome. The Ancient Romans conquered Greece around 146 BC, but admired and copied Greek civilization.
sacrifice
A gift made to the gods. For example, pieces of meat could be burned on an altar as a sacrifice.
scholar
Someone who studies - and often writes books too.
sculptor
Artist who makes statues and other works of art from stone, wood or metal.
Scythia
Ancient kingdom, north of the Black Sea in a region now inside Ukraine and Russia.
slave
A person with no freedom, owned by someone else.
shield
Large piece of wood, leather and metal held in front of a soldier's body to protect him in battle. Most Greek shields were round.
Socrates
[SOK-rat-TEES] Lived from about 470 to 399. A philosopher and friend of Plato, he was famous for asking questions, but was forced to kill himself because Athens' rulers feared his teachings.
Sophocles
[SOF-o-kleez] A writer of plays who died in 406 BC. He was also a general in the army of Pericles. Sophocles wrote tragedies.
Sparta
[SPAR-ta] A city-state in southern Greece. The Spartans were famous for their strict military training and powerful army.

T to Z

temple
A building used for religious worship and ceremonies. The Greeks put statues of gods and goddesses inside their temples.
tomb
The burial place for a dead person. Ancient people often put food, pottery, weapons and other possessions in a person's tomb.
tragedy
In theatre, a play with a sad or serious ending, and a moral lesson or teaching.
trireme
[TRY-reem] A Greek warship with three banks or rows of oars.
Troy
City in what is now Turkey, in which people called Trojans lived. They fought a 10-year war with the Greeks.
tunic
Typical clothing of Greek men and boys, a loose-fitting garment like a long shirt with short sleeves.
Xerxes
[Zerksees] King of Persia. Son of Darius. Led the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis.
Zeus
[zz YOOS] The king of the gods. Zeus was the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods.