Classics Greek and Roman Aesthetics
Oleg V. Bychkov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0126


Aesthetics is a modern discipline founded in the 18th century, turned into a robust branch of philosophy by Kant, and developed in the 19th century in German philosophical circles. Yet some of its problems and themes are by no means new, and many modern aestheticians have been inspired by ancient thought, in particular Platonic and Neoplatonic. Speaking of “ancient aesthetics,” then, is legitimate in terms of tracing certain problems, areas, and themes in ancient thought that either have influenced modern aesthetics or resemble modern aesthetic concerns. The ancient themes and problems that have been traditionally considered “aesthetic” are as follows: the sense of beauty and awe before certain natural and artistic forms, which lacks any rational explanation and yet is a source of great pleasure and seems to point to values and truths that transcend the human mind; the whole area of sensory experience that brings us the feelings of beauty and awe; the area of human production that we call the “fine arts” or the production of aesthetic objects; a number of themes and issues associated specifically with the human artistic activity, such as imitation; various literary and rhetorical techniques; and principles of tone, contrast, harmony, and composition in painting and music. Several features of ancient aesthetics are salient: first, a tight link between aesthetic and ethical concerns (due to ethical connotations of the key aesthetic terms to kalon/honestum and to prepon/decorum); second, a persistent discussion about the value of the fine arts for human society; and third, a strong connection between the aesthetic and the religious sentiment, which becomes more prominent in late antiquity with the arrival of Christianity. The discussion of the visual arts in surviving Greek and Roman texts is less frequent and often occurs in the context of discussions of poetry or literature. However, there is evidence that many technical treatises on painting, sculpture, and architecture existed. Most frequently, chapters or observations on the visual arts in antiquity occur in general studies of ancient aesthetics, studies of particular authors, or studies on poetry and literature, with occasional studies specifically on the visual arts. There were two types of writings on music in antiquity. Most surviving texts treat music as a type of mathematics and present abstract philosophical explanations of its meaning; this type has little to do with aesthetics. The second type of texts, of which only some examples survive, were highly technical texts on the way music is experienced internally; this type occasionally does contain aesthetic observations. Most commonly, music was associated with creating specific moods and was considered relevant to moral education. Relevant observations on music are discussed in general studies of ancient aesthetics, studies of individual authors, or studies of poetry, where comparisons with music abound. Recently, there have been some specific studies on ancient music that are relevant to aesthetics. An important concern for a scholar of ancient aesthetics is the availability of Greek and Roman texts in good translations, especially those that come with valuable commentaries.

General Overviews

Modern surveys of ancient aesthetics for the most part cover the period from Plato to Augustine and address topics such as beauty (which includes moral beauty and the notion of appropriateness), the arts, and specifically the theories of literary genres and styles, or poetics and rhetoric. The period before Plato is underrepresented, as are certain schools such as the Stoics and the Epicureans, because of the scarcity of textual material until recent advances in reading papyrus texts. Some general studies include ancient theological views of beauty and the arts. The plastic arts and music receive less attention because of the predominance of literary discussions in antiquity, except in the case of specific authors or texts. Books that focus on texts range from collections of longer texts only (Bychkov and Sheppard 2010) to collections of shorter text fragments with commentary (Tatarkiewicz 1970). Surveys of aesthetic thought range from multivolume studies on philosophical aesthetics that include the entire ancient period (Losev 1963–1994) to short surveys that focus either mostly on Plato and Aristotle (Warry 1962, Büttner 2006) or on the whole period (Grassi 1962, Carchia 1999). There are companions that contain essays on a wide range of aesthetic topics (Destrée and Murray 2015), collections of essays on various aesthetic topics (Boudouris 2000), analyses of ancient aesthetics from a modern point of view (Faas 2002), and individual essays on specific aesthetic concepts such as beauty (Pappas 1998, Ross 1998).

  • Boudouris, K., ed. 2000. Greek philosophy and the fine arts. 2 vols. Athens, Greece: International Center for Greek Philosophy and Culture.

    A collection of essays in two volumes, Volume 1 by established scholars and Volume 2 mostly by doctoral students. A broad study that includes aesthetic topics other than literature (see entries on the best individual essays according to topics).

  • Büttner, S. 2006. Antike Ästhetik: Eine Einführung in die Prinzipien des Schönen. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    A recent general study of ancient aesthetics, with a special emphasis on Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.

  • Bychkov, O., and A. Sheppard. 2010. Greek and Roman aesthetics. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511780325

    A recent collection of new translations of ancient texts specifically on philosophical aesthetics that focuses on sensory perception, philosophical and theological implications of aesthetic experience, and philosophy of art. Covers the period from Gorgias to Proclus. The translation of Philodemus’s treatise on music appears for the first time in English.

  • Carchia, G. 1999. L’estetica antica. Rome and Bari, Italy: Laterza.

    A short general historical survey with a good concise bibliography according to topics and figures; examines the period from Homer to Plotinus, with an emphasis on topics such as beauty, truth in art and poetry, imitation (Plato and Aristotle), rhetoric, and styles.

  • Destrée, P., and P. Murray, eds. 2015. A companion to ancient aesthetics. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

    A collection of essays by the most prominent scholars in ancient aesthetics that covers all periods of ancient Greek and Roman culture. The subjects range from art criticism and philosophy of art to aesthetics proper, and include both traditional ancient topics (style, imitation, the tragic and the comic) and issues typical of modern aesthetics, such as aesthetic sense perception of sound or color, the beautiful and the sublime, fiction, imagination, aesthetic pleasure, aesthetic value, and aesthetic wonder. Includes extensive bibliographies that can be used in their own right.

  • Faas, E. 2002. The genealogy of aesthetics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Relevant chapters cover the aesthetics of Plato, Plotinus, and Augustine. Examines ancient authors through a Nietzschean perspective and focuses on Plato’s critique of the arts and Plotinus’s and Augustine’s discussions of evil. Plato and his followers are presented as rejecting the aesthetics of the body in favor of aesthetic idealism.

  • Grassi, E. 1962. Die Theorie des Schönen in der Antike. Cologne: M. DuMont.

    A survey of ancient aesthetics, from Presocratics to Plotinus, with a more detailed coverage of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle, and with a particular emphasis on the relationship between beauty and art.

  • Losev, A. F. 1963–1994. Istoriya antichnoy estetiki. 8 vols. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

    World’s most comprehensive work on ancient aesthetics, from Homer to late Greek pagan (Damascius) to early Greek Christian (Cappadocians and later) to late ancient Latin Christian writers (Boethius), with an emphasis on Neoplatonism and on philosophical aesthetics. Includes a discussion of aesthetic categories such as art and beauty.

  • Pappas, N. 1998. Beauty: Classical concepts. In Encyclopedia of aesthetics. Vol. 1. Edited by M. Kelly, 244–249. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Covers the period from Plato to Plotinus and examines the relationship between beauty and the arts.

  • Ross, S. D. 1998. Beauty: Conceptual and historical overview. In Encyclopedia of aesthetics. Vol. 1. Edited by M. Kelly, 237–244. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Starts with the discussion of beauty in Greek and Roman thought, from Plato to Boethius. Focuses on beauty’s relation to the divine and the good, as well as on the issue of imitation and the arts.

  • Tatarkiewicz, W. 1970. Ancient aesthetics. Vol. 1 of The history of aesthetics. Edited by J. Harrell. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.

    A classic collection of excerpts from Greek and Roman texts on aesthetics, with short introductory essays; covers the concepts of beauty and the arts and the period from Archaic authors to the Classical to the Hellenistic period to late antiquity. Musical aesthetics and poetics are treated as separate topics.

  • Warry, J. G. 1962. Greek aesthetic theory: A study of callistic and aesthetic concepts in the works of Plato and Aristotle. London: Methuen.

    A short study on Plato’s concepts of beauty and the arts, including artistic passion and the question of the value of poetry and the arts, as well as on Aristotle’s ideas about beauty, the arts, imitation, and dramatic catharsis.

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