Ancient Mediterranean 3500 B.C.E. - 300 C. E.

Topic 1: Major concepts

  • The major societies of the ancient Mediterranean world were all highly literate, and a fair amount of their writing survives (an exception is the literature of the Etruscans, which has mostly vanished). Systems of writing ranged from the cuneiform of the ancient Near East to hieroglyphics of Egypt; the Greeks and Romans both used recognizable variations of our own alphabet.

  • This means that surviving buildings and artifacts can be interpreted in the light of both written records of day-to-day life (business transactions, law codes) and of literary works such as epic poems and religious texts. Greek and Latin (= Roman) literature form the foundation of much later European literature, ensuring that these cultures and their art remain familiar and influential.

  • More or less realistic depictions of the human body were central to the art of all these cultures. While they each had their own way of portraying the body (and these evolved over time), cross-cultural contacts and influences were common.

  • Choice of materials played a large role in what monuments and artifacts have survived for us to study, and in what shape. Buildings and objects of stone obviously survive much better than those made of baked clay or mud, which is why much more survives from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, than from the ancient Near East or Etruria. We know a lot about Greek statuary (thanks in part to Roman copies), but little about Greek painting. Also, many sculptures and monuments were originally brightly painted, making them look very different than they do now.

  • The societies of the ancient Near East and of Egypt were ruled by kings who were seen as divine or semi-divine figures, as much or more gods than men. However, the stability and unity of Egypt form a strong contrast to the warring city-states that rose and fell in the Ancient Near East. Much of the art created by these societies exalts these godlike rulers.

  • The Greeks rejected monarchy in favor of representative institutions and relatively broad participation in civic life, as did the Romans of the republican era. However, the later Roman emperors revived the earlier idea of the god-king as their empire expanded and became more diverse.

Related Links:
Etruscan and Roman Art
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes