Individuality in Ancient Greece

Whether a person sees himself as an autonomous individual or a subservient drone within a society is something that can influence the course of that particular culture. Conversely, it can be debated that it is the influence of the society that determines the view of individuality held by its people. Where one civilization’s focus on the individual may be instrumental in its success, another may thrive by subverting individuality and treating all of its members as interconnected parts of one greater whole.

The Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Persians viewed the role of the individual within society very differently. By studying the art of the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Persians, such as the Bust of Pericles in Athenian art and the depiction of Xerxes in Persian art, it is possible to gain an understanding of how the members of each society viewed themselves in relation to the other members of society and their respective leaders. It also provides an understanding of how those perceptions affected the society as a whole and determined its eventual fate. Individuality was revered in Ancient Greece.

As part of the culture, each individual saw himself as a contributing, yet autonomous member of society. The Bust of Pericles depicts the Athenian leader as an everyman. True, the piece is classical in nature and therefore does not show any physical flaws, but neither is the leader elevated to the status of a deity. Actually, the Greeks saw man a creature of such importance, that they created their deities after their own image. In contrast, the depictions of Xerxes I, ruler of the Persian Empire, show a society that sees themselves very differently than they see their leader.

They depict an individual who is not only twice the size of a normal person; he is someone who has been elevated to the status of a god. His subjects are shown following him with an umbrella to shield him from the sun. In other depictions he is shown to be seated, feet not touching the ground, because it would be beneath him to do so. It is clear that this is not someone who enters into battle as one of the many, but someone who watches, much like a god does, as others sacrifice themselves for the common goal.

In relation to their leaders, the Greeks saw themselves on equal footing, having somewhat of a say in the actions of their leader. The Persians, on the other hand, saw themselves as creations whose purpose was to fulfill the wishes of their leader, who must be protected and revered. The way that individuals viewed themselves within society ultimately had ramifications on how those societies functioned. Greek individualism manifested itself as pride in many cases. The Bust of Pericles is evidence of this pride.

While Pericles is presented as a warrior, with his battle helmet pushed up onto his head, he is also an ideal specimen. His face unflawed; no wrinkles or frown lines grace his placid expression. This pride that the Greeks felt not only extended to each person, but each tribe, or polis. For instance, the Athenians saw themselves as collectively superior to their surrounding Greeks. Because of this viewpoint, there was constant strife between the Greeks. This resulted in them not being as strong as a society as they could have been otherwise.

They were able to come together against a common enemy, like the Persians, but only in the interest of self-preservation. Once they had defeated the Persians, internal conflicts resurfaced, and they embroiled themselves in so many battles that they ultimately left themselves vulnerable. Xerxes is similarly portrayed in the sense that his appearance in Persian art is very regal, with a full beard which was representative of a wise ruler. In pieces where he is in the presence of others, he is shown as being almost twice their size. It can be assumed from observing this that the Persian view of royalty was skewed.

They were not mere humans, but something greater. You did not fight alongside them, you fought for them. A faithful Persian does not serve his own interests, he serves the interests of his ruler. As the Persian Empire grew to encompass other countries and cultures, that was a mindset that was hard to impose on others; eventually leading to revolts that contributed to their demise. While the Greeks and the Persians saw themselves differently, both in relation to society and to their leaders and those differences present themselves in the art of each culture.

It is clear that each ideology had both benefits and consequences. The fierce individualism that drove Greek society to its pinnacle was also a contributor to its demise. Willingness to submit and serve their ruler without question seemed to serve the Persians for a time, but ultimately that same passivity made it easy for stronger cultures to revolt against the empire and fracture it. Even so, Greek individualism was responsible for leaving a vast legacy of artwork, literature and culture from which Western Civilization continues to benefit and build upon.