Classical Art and the Cultures of Greece and Rome

John Onians

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In this highly original inquiry into the foundations of European culture, John Onians argues that the study of classical art provides a unique window into the minds of the Greeks and Romans for whom it was produced. Onians provides a sweeping account that ranges from the Greek Dark Ages to the Christianization of Rome and that reveals how the experience of a constantly changing physical environment influenced the inhabitants of ancient Greece and Rome. Tracing the imaginative life of these peoples through their responses to and their relation with the material world, the author shows how an examination of their artistic activity offers an especially insightful approach to their ideas and attitudes.

The book begins by explaining how the early Greeks—exposed to a rocky landscape, dependent on craft activities, and involved in warfare—saw themselves as made of stone and metal and represented themselves in statues of marble and bronze. Later, in the Hellenistic period, as the awareness of the individual’s power increased, so did the sense of physical and emotional weakness, while, with the rise of Rome, art came to be seen less as representation and more as sign, to be experienced less as a lever on the feelings and more as an aid to memory. By the end of the Roman Empire, Onians contends, inhabitants acquired an unprecedented sense of unstable inner life that enabled them to represent themselves not as solid sculptures but as thin marble slabs, their surfaces animated by veins suggestive of hidden spiritual vitality.

John Onians is professor and director of the World Art Research Programme in the School of World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of numerous books on art history, including the classic work, Bearers of Meaning.

“Weaving together the strands of history, philosophy, literature and finally art, Dr. Onians composes a remarkably neat tapestry of ancient culture. . . . This is an important book. Dr. Onians’ is a major voice in the field of Classical art history. . . . A wide-ranging and intelligent survey of classical culture and show the way for future discussion of ancient art.”—Ross Kennedy, Art Newspaper


“Onians has written an original, comprehensive analysis of the development of Greek and Roman artistic culture.”—Richard Brilliant, Burlington Magazine




"An extremely useful and insightful study. . . . Highly recommended for its exceptionally clear and revealing writing."—Choice


"An intellectual and imaginative tour de force in which we are asked to see the art and architecture of ancient Greece as the visible outcrops of a culture that was militaristic to its fingertips."—James Hall, The Independent


"Anyone who tries to distill the essence of ancient Greek and Roman culture in a single volume of less than 300 pages requires an uncommon breadth of erudition, a talent for avoiding distracting detail and an audacity that borders on arrogance. John Onians seems admirably equipped for the task on all counts. . . . From a rich array of objects, supplemented by well-chosen literary texts, [Onians] constructs a panorama of the classical world from archaic Greece to late antiquity. . . . This is heady stuff, stimulating."—Glen W. Bowersock, Wall Street Journal


"Onians' study offers a new explanation as to why Greek and Roman art (2500 BCE-600 CE) changed stylistically. . . . A fresh and innovative approach."—Heidi J. Hornik, Religious Studies Review

ISBN: 9780300075335
Publication Date: August 25, 1999
320 pages, 7 1/2 x 10 1/2
230 b/w illus.
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