World History Episode 5 The Persians & Greeks (Time Stamp 2:52 & 3:02)

The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509 - 1511

Context in CC: “We all know about the Greeks: Architecture, Philosophy, Literature. The very word music comes from Greek, as does so much else in contemporary culture. Greek poets and mathematicians, playwrights and architects and philosophers founded a culture we still identify with, and introduced us to many ideas from democracy to fart jokes.” In which we find out that the ancient Greeks liked fart jokes. (Because that was the main point right?)

Greater Historical/Art Historical Relevance:  The School of Athens is one of four frescoes Raphael painted to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura a room in the Vatican that was designed as the library of Pope Julius. The fresco, one of the masterpieces of the the high renaissance. The renaissance, at its roots, was the ‘rebirth’ of the culture and arts of ancient Greece and Rome. Raphael depicts the major figures of Ancient Greek Philosophy. 

The classical architecture depicted in the painting, and the use of one-point perspective bring the focus of the painting to the two center-most figures. The two figures are Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle on the right and Plato on the left respectively. Each hold a copy of their writings, while gesturing very precisely with their hands. Plato is the older of the two, having been Aristotle’s teacher. Their hand gestures refer to the differences in their respective philosophies. Plato points upward, indicating his Theory of Forms, which has its basis in the immaterial world. Aristotle gestures with his palm facing the ground indicating his empiricism, his emphasis on the concrete. (Consequently the positioning of their hands also gave way to this, which is my favorite).

Raphael used his contemporaries as models for the great some of the ancient Greek philosophers he depicted. The broody looking Heraclitus in the foreground is actually based on Michelangelo. Plato is based on Leonardo, and peaking in on the right side upper level is Apelles, actually an inserted self-portrait of Raphael. 

The 'school’ referred to in the title is less a literal school, than the Greek Philosophical school of thought, and The School of Athens is a quintessential renaissance painting (despite the fluidity of periodization, it really does apply here), Raphael has managed to revive both the classical style of painting and depiction of architecture, as well a cultural and intellectual traditions of ancient Greece (not including fart jokes).

Nicholas Penny. “Raphael.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed September 23, 2012).

World History Episode 5 The Persians & Greeks (Time Stamp 5:53)

Leonidas at Thermopylae, Jacques Louis David, 1814

Context in CC: “So between 490 and 480 BCE, the Persians made war on the Greek city states. This was the war that featured the battle of Thermopylae where 300 brave Spartans–if you believe Herodotus–five million Persians.”So the Spartans take their place in history (partly due to Herodotus’ bias) as the ultimate underdogs, and Frank Miller makes a movie that has very little to do with any of that. 

Greater Historical/Art Historical Relevance: So the Renaissance was the rebirth of classical ideas, and intellect, and art and culture. But after that faded and gave way to new stlyes it didn’t just go away. The classical style (in art at least) resurfaced in the late seventeenth century when the idealism and subject matter of the classical style again gained popularity in a style very uncreatively named Neoclassicism. 

Jacques Louis David is probably the most notable artist of the neoclassical style. He was the foremost painter of the French Revolution and a friend of Robespierre. And then after the fall of the French Republic he aligned himself with the court of Napoleon I. David finished Leonidas at Thermopylae in 1814 about ten years before his death. The painting was perhaps ill-timed,

Leonidas at Thermopylae, coincided with the fall of Napoleon; not surprisingly, the image of the courageous Spartan king, facing imminent defeat in battle, met with Napoleon’s disapproval in the aftermath of his disastrous Russian campaign (1).

The painting shows the spartan king readying his small number of troops for battle against the supposed army of five million Persians. Leonidas sits in the very center, completely nude and unfazed by what he is about to face. The idealism in both Leonidas’ physiology and his general attitude show David returning from his empire style, to something closer to the roots of his original neoclassical, depicting a classical subject in an idealizing classical style (his painting The Oath of The Horatii, from much earlier in his career is often used as an exemplar of neoclassicism).

We will see David again in Crash Course World History, later in this very episode and when we examine the French Revolution. His history painting style lends itself to the illustration of any history course.

This painting is also featured in Episode 8, Alexander the Great, at Time Stamp 3:03.

1. Galitz, Kathryn Calley. “The Legacy of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

2. Simon Lee. “David, Jacques-Louis.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed September 23, 2012).

World History Episode 5 The Persians & Greeks (Time Stamp 0:22)

Frieze of the Immortal Gaurd, at the Palace of Darius I, 582 - 486 BCE

Context in CC: “Today we’re going to learn about the horrible totalitarian Persians and the the saintly democracy-loving Greeks. But of course we already know this story, there were some wars where no one wore any shirts and everyone was reasonably fit; the Persians were bad; the Greeks were good. Socrates and Plato were awesome; the Persians didn’t even philosophize. The West is the Best! Go Team! Yeah…well, no. In which John teaches us about historical bias, that there are two (or more) sides to every story, and the Persians were pretty cool too.

Greater Historical/Art Historical Relevance: So the most productive ruler of the  Achaemenid Persian Empire was Darius I or Darius the Great. Darius stabilized the empire: built roads for communication and trade and established a system of governors, he ‘conquered’ Northwest India and, most important art historically, started construction on two new major buildings at Susa in attempt to create an imperial center in Persepolis, the Achaemenid capital. 

Most recognizable part of these buildings at Susa are the extensive stone and brick relief sculptures Darius and his successors commissioned to decorate the walls. The large portion of these reliefs are in stone and depict people from different parts of the empire processing towards the kings throne to offer up their tribute. These sculptures are meant to convey the harmonious functioning of a heterogeneous empire. Though the Persians ran a vast empire, they didn’t force Persian culture onto the people they conquered and thus they were able to run such a large area much more smoothly.

This image depicts not the tributaries, but a row of guards. Pictured above is a section of a much larger frieze. The frieze contains two lines of soldiers parading towards each other, each cut from the same template, but slightly differentiated in dress from the surrounding guards. The frieze here differs from the tributary friezes in it’s technique also. Here the low relief sculptures are molded in quartz bases brick and then glazed with bright colors (The same technique is more often illustrated with the Ishtar Gate from Babylon)

Bricks from identified to be from this frieze have been found all over the excavation sites at Susa, so the original location within the palace is basically unknown, and was perhaps placed at regular intervals, instead of in one long frieze. Another theory postulates that they lined the outer walls of the palace. A widely head belief states that these brick reliefs represent the “Immortals” an elite regiment of 10,000 men who served as both an imperial guard and standing army. Herodutus (The Greek historian before there was such thing as a historian) so named them because their number was always immediately restored to 10,000 after battle losses.

Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 B.C.)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. 2004)