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date: 18 April 2024



  • Gail L. Hoffman


Orientalizing has two primary uses in studies about ancient Mediterranean society: as an art historical or archaeological phase designation (the Orientalizing period) and as a general label of cultural interactions (similar to Hellenizing or Romanizing). Both uses have received strong criticism and calls for abandonment of the term. The Orientalizing period (the later 8th and 7th centuries bce) marks a time when borrowed eastern imagery, artistic technologies, and cultural practices were being appropriated, adapted, and incorporated into local cultures in the Aegean, central, and western Mediterranean. Sustained analysis of this material culture has provided greater understanding of the dynamics of these interactions and, more importantly, has led to exploration of the uses these borrowings and adaptations served within local communities. Many recent art and archaeology survey books (possibly reacting to critique of the term) no longer include an Orientalizing period, subsuming it into the Greek Archaic period. Orientalizing (a term similar to Hellenizing and Romanizing) sometimes describes a broader and more sustained interaction. Problems in implied agency and assumptions embedded in this term as revealed in critiques of orientalism have led to challenges about its efficacy.


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
  • Near East

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Cultural interactions between the ancient Near East and Greece (also Etruria and Iberia) are evident in local artistic responses as well as broader social changes. The term Orientalizing (in two primary uses) has described this interaction: first, the Orientalizing period that designates an art historical or archaeological phase and style (c. 750–600 bce) during which eastern objects, images, technologies, and ideas were appropriated and reworked; and second, Orientalizing (also Orientalization) that can describe a more chronologically sustained and expansive intercultural engagement. Critique of labelling Near Eastern societies, oriental, as well as poorly defined and shifting uses of the term have led to calls for its abandonment.

Greek Identity and Perception of the East

The Homeric epics suggest that people around the Aegean Sea (Greece) perceived themselves in distinction from others, for example, Trojans, Sidonians, and Phoenicians.1 Yet it is unlikely that communities to the east were considered part of a collective Orient or Near Eastern culture during the 8th and 7th centuries bce. There is also little evidence that Aegean communities at this time identified themselves as a distinct cultural group (i.e., Greek or Hellenic). Hellenic identity begins to appear gradually from Homer through the 6th century bce, becoming more pronounced following the Persian Wars.2 Greek and Near Eastern, then, are both problematic terms.3 Nevertheless, Homer and archaeological remains indicate that Aegean communities were aware of and interacting with people to their east, acquiring objects and materials, appropriating technological skills, writing, and, more broadly perhaps, borrowing ideas about religion, literature, and science.

Orientalizing Period

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries ce, scholars outlined a phase of Greek (also Etruscan and Iberian) artistic and cultural development (c. 750–600 bce) during which eastern imports, imagery, and technologies became prominent.4 Citing Homer (Il. 23.704–745; Od. 13.256ff., 15.415ff.), agents for the transmission of objects and imagery were initially identified as Phoenicians.5

The term, Orientalizing period, then, described a transitional phase between the Late Geometric and Archaic periods during which interactions between Greece and the Near East generated significant cultural changes. Study of metalwork and sculpture in Crete and elsewhere, as well as pottery decoration in Corinth, Athens, and eastern Greece, characterized an Orientalizing style (see Figures 1 and 2).6 In pottery, elements of this style included plant and animal imagery (e.g., lotus, palmette, lion, sphinx, griffin), with eastern prototypes often found on imported metalwork such as relief-decorated bowls.7 In sculpture, a borrowed eastern technology for mould-made terracotta introduced a local figural style labelled daedalic that also appeared in other media (such as stone and ivory).8

Figure 1. Corinthian olpe (jug), c. 630–610 bce, attributed to the Sphinx Painter, ht 43.2 cm.

Source. Metropolitan Museum 96.18.38, open access.

Figure 2. Cretan mould-made terracotta female figure, 7th century bce, ht 16.5 cm.

Source. Metropolitan Museum 53.5.25, open access.

During the 20th century, studies of contacts and exchanges, focused especially on bronzes (e.g., relief decorated bowls and cauldron attachments; ivory, pottery, stone sculpture, and architecture, as well as iconographical borrowing; see Figure 3). Scholars also noted new artistic technologies appearing in Greece as well as the transformation of imagery in its new settings.9 Often they concluded that local cultures in the process of borrowing made substantial alterations, thus appropriating and creating forms that were uniquely their own. Questions about agency and exchange continued to be asked and encounters with eastern imagery were proposed in partial explanation for the creation of visual narrative and mythological storytelling in Greek art.10

Figure 3. Bronze griffin cauldron attachment, c. 650–625 bce, ht 25.8 cm.

Source. Metropolitan Museum 1972.118.54, open access.

Studies of bronze bowls (for example) demonstrate some of the questions posed and progress made in analysis of these cultural interactions. Imported relief decorated bowls (one likely vector for eastern imagery that was borrowed and adapted) are known from Cyprus, Crete, Greece, and Etruria (see Figure 4).11 Scholars initially sought to identify their places of origin in the Near East (Phoenicia, North Syria, the Levant) and often analysed their movement in terms of trade. The precise source(s) of their Near Eastern production has proven difficult to locate.12 In addition, recent studies of the Mediterranean Sea have emphasized that it fostered connections among communities (that were likely multicultural) and that the carriers of goods were probably also multi-ethnic.13 Seeking the origin of the bowls or the identity of traders (although important) has proven a diversion from understanding how these bronze bowls were used within Greek communities.

Figure 4. Silver-gilt decorated bowl, c. 725–675 bce, diam. 16.8 cm.

Source. Cesnola Collection, Metropolitan Museum 74.51.4554, open access.

Increasingly, studies of eastern objects found in the west emphasize the contexts of object use and cycles of consumption, that is, the social biography of an object.14 Appropriation and uses of bronze bowls in the west are regionally distinctive and also differ at individual sites. In Greece, they are dedicated in sanctuaries (Delphi, Olympia, and the Idaean Cave) and are also used in graves (Lefkandi, Knossos, Eleutherna, and Athens), sometimes as stoppers for cremation urns.15 A few bowls have Phoenician inscriptions that when compared to their find contexts indicate the objects were centuries old when deposited.16 Scholars are exploring patterns of acquisition and whether their uses in sanctuaries and burials also introduced new social practices and forms of display.17 They are also reformulating traditions of iconographical analyses to examine whether mixed visual cultures existed and to consider how local viewers might understand and make use of the foreign imagery found on imported objects.18

In addition to imports, Greek sites, such as the Idaean Cave in Crete and Olympia, also preserve close imitations and freer adaptations of eastern objects. The Idaean Cave bronze tympanum (Figure 5) showing winged eastern genii beating cymbals (possibly to drown out the cries of the infant Zeus who was raised at the Cave) seems purpose-made for a cult at the site.19 At Olympia an imported eastern bronze relief was combined with locally made reliefs and wrapped around a wooden core (sphyrelaton) to create a statue of a goddess (Figure 6).20 Such locally made adaptations raise questions about whether itinerant craftsmen visited and trained local artisans or whether there in fact were immigrant populations, and also whether these groups of people might have played a role in the transmission of foreign social practices and ideas.21

Figure 5. Idaean Cave tympanum, Archaeological Museum Heraklion, Crete.

Source. Photograph by C. Messier. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Figure 6. Olympia eastern bronze relief C with skirt, DAI Athens neg.79.559, Olympia Museum.

Source. Courtesy of DAI Athen-Fotothek. Photograph by Gösta Hellner.

Results of detailed inquiry about cultural interactions from objects, individual sites, and regions now reveal that contacts with the Near East extended back to at least the 10th century (at Lefkandi and Knossos) and may, in fact, have been uninterrupted from the Late Bronze Age. Interactions were regionally distinctive and even site-specific; they went beyond artistic and technological change to include cultural practices. All these discoveries challenge the boundaries of a traditional Orientalizing period and yet also underscore the importance of studying these interactions.

Orientalizing (Orientalization)

At the same time, not just physical objects showed signs of these complex intercultural interactions, but so did other elements of Greek culture such as the borrowing of the Phoenician alphabet to write Greek as well as aspects of early literature and religion.22 The term Orientalizing (also Orientalization), as some observe, is used more broadly to describe a process of active transformation of eastern cultural elements by people in non-eastern locations.23

The term Orientalizing has come under sustained criticism. Problems with “orientalizing” are threefold: the imposition of a view from the west; the treatment of all parts of “the east” as the same, and lack of clarity about agency. Following Said’s influential publication, Orientalism, researchers acknowledged that the label Orientalizing perpetuated western assumptions of superiority and other biases about an imagined Orient.24 The term lumped together numerous different cultural groups, largely ignoring the nuances of political and cultural circumstances, and it created a fictive and non-existent east.25 The suffixes “-izing” and “-ization” also implied actions in only one direction, often with limited agency. These terms could subsume both process and outcome. Leading to an introverted (almost circular) reasoning, the objects and practices are part of identifying the phenomenon about which they provide evidence.26 Finally, when limited to the 8th and 7th centuries bce, the terms fail to acknowledge earlier (i.e., Late Bronze Age) or later (i.e., Classical) interactions.27 While there are substantial problems with the term Orientalizing, it remains important to understand as fully as possible the cultural interactions and changing uses of eastern materials within Greek culture.


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