World of the Greeks – The Hellenic Musuem

(pic - Story) Hellenic Musuem - Title

If you know anything about me you will know that I love the Ancient Greek world. In fact my second sojourn overseas was none other than to Greece (it would have been my first, but we decided to have a weekend in Hong Kong just to get my brother used to heading overseas, and to also calm my Dad’s nerves in letting him out of the country). While I could write quite a bit on my adventures in Greece, I might leave that for another time (namely after I manage to get back there, though that won’t be any time soon) because this is actually a story about a little bit of Greece that has come to Melbourne.

As I was making my way to Spencer Street Station (actually, Southern Cross, but apparently Melburnians still refer to it as Spencer Street because that used to be the name of the station before they gave it a massive face lift – though I have to admit that it looked pretty grotty beforehand) I walked past the old Melbourne mint, which is now the Hellenic Museum, and I noticed out of the corner of my eye an advertisement for an Ancient Greek exhibition. Well, I didn’t have time to turn back and have a closer look, so I filed it away in my mind, intending on checking it one once I reached Sydney (yes, I had a plane to catch).

(pic - Story) Hellenic Musuem - Advertisement

Well, it turned out that this exhibition, Gods Myths, and Mortals, was actually a long term exhibition, and had numerous antiquities on display. Knowing that if by putting it off, and putting it off, I would end up missing it, I made it my goal that I would visit this exhibition before it was too late. So, one Saturday Morning I went to my friend’s house, dragged him out of bed, jumped on the train and made our way down here (after purchasing another notebook and pen since I realised once I was on the train that I had left my other one at home).

Mind you, I was in two minds about whether to post this here, or on my other blog where I normally write about exhibitions, as opposed to the museum as a whole, but since this exhibition is pretty much THE Hellenic Musuem it is probably best that it goes here (which makes me wonder what will actually be here once the exhibition finishes – they’ll probably have something, though unlikely to be anywhere near as exciting as Ancient Greek Artifacts). Mind you, I’m not surprised that there is a dedicated Hellenic Museum, especially since one of my university lecturers suggested that Melbourne is the second biggest Greek city outside of Athens.

(pic - Story) Hellenic Musuem - Secular Art

A Brief History of Greece

Actually, that is a bit of a misnomer – you can’t have a brief history of Greece, but then again depending on how detailed you are I suspect you can’t have a brief history of any place. Mind you, considering that I see history as being a collection of wars and revolutions, places like, say, Adelaide, as far as I’m concerned, really have very little history. Sure, we can write about the settlers, and the struggles the colony faced, and so on and so forth, but in my mind that actually isn’t all that exciting. Greece, however, is a different story, particularly since these people had a huge influence on our modern culture.

Anyway, as I said, I’m going to be brief, so if you want a much more detailed outline go to the wikipedia article, or even better read a book by an expert (or, if you happen to be in Melbourne, pop along to the Hellenic Museum and go for a wander through their exhibition – it actually covers pretty much all of Greek History from the prehistoric times to the nation states). However, the thing about this exhibition is that we get to see artifacts from pretty much all eras from Greek Civilisation, from the prehistoric bronze age period to the modern state. I’ll say a little bit of each of the periods (and may even show you some photos of some of the ruins) and then say a few things on the pieces in the museum.

The Age of Mythology

Around four or five thousand years ago Greece was basically a bunch of tribes who came together to form cities, and from these cities arose the Mycenean fortresses. This was the time of mythology when you had characters like Odysseus, Achilles, and Theseus running around doing their stuff. However the only thing we actually have from this period are the ruins of the palaces and a bunch of trinkets – the writing didn’t come until much later. Anyway, it is believed that the Greeks were invaded by the Dorians from the north (and then it is suggested that they went and conquered all of the Mediterranean basin, with the exception of Egypt, who managed to push them back), which resulted in the destruction of that civilisation.

While I refer to this period as ‘The Age of Mythology’ most scholars (actually all of them I believe – I like to be different) refer to this age as the Bronze Age. The main reason for this is because the people of this time started making things out of Bronze. While we don’t have much in the way of writing (that we can actually read that is) we do have quite a few artifacts, with a few on display at the museum. The pottery during this time actually wasn’t all that flash, though they did seem to be able to make some pretty sophisticated jewellery. One thing that they did have was a helmet which was, not surprisingly, made out of Bronze.

There were a couple of other interesting items here as well, including a Minoan double headed axe. The Minoans were another civilisation that arose on the island of Crete, and are famous not only for the story of the Minotaur, but also the story of Icarus and Daedelus (Icarus was the guy who attempted to fly to the sun and failed quite badly).

Classical Age

From the ashes of the Myceneans came what is known as the Classical Greek period (though there was a period of time known as the Dark Age, namely because we don’t know anything about that period), which is the time when Socrates and Plato where teaching their stuff, and Leonidas the Spartan King was fighting back the Persian hordes. The classical period technically ended with the rise of Alexander the Great and his march across the Middle East, where he spread Greek culture as far east and India, and also brought Egypt under Greek Rule. It was during this time that some of the most famous places in Greece, such as Delphi and the Acropolis, were built.

It was during this period that we see the rise of the Greek culture, with the development of theatre, philosophy, as well as art and architecture. The vases from this period now have pictures of various myths and legends on the side. The collection contained coins, vases, as well as bowls that were used to drink wine (the Athenians drank their wine from a bowl, and the trick was to be able to drink it without actually spilling anything on yourself). There is also an Amphora in the collection, something that I remember fondly from the Asterix comics since they always seemed to contain wine (though they would contain other things, such as grain).

Roman Occupation

I’m now going to jump over to the Roman period, which lasted from the mid 2nd century BC to around the 4th century AD. However I will mention that after Alexander died his empire split into four and each of the resulting regions began to develop their own identity, with Ptolemaic Egypt becoming the centre of Greek art and philosophy. While Greece still produced their own art and literature, many of the creators would eventually migrate to Egypt, which at the time was the philosophical heart of the Mediterranean world.

That changed somewhat when the Romans invaded, not so much that the Romans brought their own culture to bear on the Greeks, but rather that the Greek culture swept across Rome. It was around this time that you begin to see a rise in Roman Art and literature, which ironically had a very distinct Greek flavour to it. However, while the Greeks influence Roman Art, the Romans in turn influenced Greek architecture.

Okay, there wasn’t anything in the museum that screamed out to me that it was specifically Roman (and I didn’t actually make any notes on their specific dates), however there were still quite a lot of artifacts from the ancient period on display (including some wooden toys, and some Egyptian antiquities), so I will post a photo of some of them here before I move on to the next era.

Byzantine Rome

At it’s height Rome was big, really, really big, which actually ended up creating a problem – it was really, really difficult to be ruled by a single man. As such, during the later decades, you begin to see multiple emperors ruling at the same time, and this started causing issues because these emperors would start to fight among themselves. This was put to a temporary stop by the Emperor Constantine, who also established an Eastern capital in a small city known as Byzantium (which then became known as Constantinople). After his death the unified empire didn’t last all that long and quickly split in two. The Western Empire quickly collapsed through waves of barbarian invasions, however the Eastern Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire, lasted for much longer (until the late 1400s). Ruled out of Constantinople, the Byzantine once again took a distinctly Greek flavour, and a number of historians actually consider this to be a Greek empire as opposed to anything remotely Roman.

However the thing about the Byzantine Empire was that despite it having its foundations in the Greek and Roman Empires, it was in fact an empire of its own making. First of all the Byzantine was Christian, orthodox Christian to be precisely (Christianity split into two branches – Catholic in the West and Orthodox in the East). They also began to develop their own style of art and architecture, as well as continued to preserve much of the learning from the past. However their art was all distinctly Christian in flavour – the gods of Greek mythology were a taboo subject to paint.

Of course the Byzantines had their fair share of Madonna and Child paintings.

Anyway, the Byzantines lasted an awfully long time, right up until the end of the 15th century when Constantinople finally fell to the invading Turks, and was renamed Istanbul. Mind you, the empire at that time was already on its death throws, and the point in time that signalled the beginning of the end was when the Venetians, a growing power in the Mediterranean, launched a surprise attack on the city. By the end of the 15th Century the Byzantine Empire was no more, and the Greeks were to be ruled by the Islamic Turks until the 19th Century.

Modern Greece

I’ve noticed that I’ve completely skipped what I will refer to as Islamic Greece (or more precisely Ottoman Greece). The interesting thing about this period is that the Greeks actually retained their identity. Mind you, traditionally Greece held all of the territory to the East of the Aegean Sea, which has since become predominantly Turkish. One of the reasons for this was that after the revolution, and the numerous wars afterwards, it was agreed that all of the Greeks in Turkey would move to Greece and all of the Turks in Greece would return to Turkey (there were a number of resettlement programs in the Early to Mid Twentieth century in Europe which were designed to reduce tensions) and it was agreed that Greece would occupy the peninsula and the northern coast of the Aegean Sea.

Even then, despite the Turkish occupation for some 400 years, the Greeks still retained their nationality, and identity. Part of this had to do with them fleeing into the mountains, and part of this had to do with the islands retaining independence. One of the main reasons for this no doubt had to do with the Turks not really having a strong naval presence, while the Venetians and the Geonese did. As you travel around parts of Greece, and especially the islands, you will still see the remains of the Venetian forts, such as this one on Crete.

(pic - Story) Hellenic Museum - Venetian Fortress

In 1821 the Greeks rose in revolt against the Ottomans, and achieved independence in 1829 (no doubt with the help of the English and the French), and was the first Ottoman State to achieve independence. In 1829 the great powers met in London and agreed that they would acknowledge a sovereign Greek nation (no doubt due to people such as Lord Byron offering assistance to the rebels). Thus was born the modern Greek state, a state that could once again return to its Orthodox roots. The capital was also established in Athens, which at the time was little more than a village surrounded by ruins.

So, that was the end of my trek through the history of Greece, from the Mythological Age right through to the era when Lord Byron took the oath to free Greece from slavery to the Ottomans to to attempt to return it to its glory days. However, one thing I didn’t mention was that there was a section which was predominantly orthodox religious art that despite the four hundred years of occupation, was still being produced by the locals (and the fact that you find monasteries on Metanoria and Athos goes to show how they survived four hundred years of Ottoman Rule, though a lot had to do with the fact that for the most part the Ottomans were generally fairly tolerant of other faiths, though they were taxed heavily).

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World of the Greeks – The Hellenic Musuem by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

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