Our Classical collection unlocks a window to a ‘birthplace of civilisation’: ancient Greece and Rome.

From scientific advances to artistic innovations, modern Western civilisation is considered to stand on the shoulders of the great Classical civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome. While they themselves were influenced by earlier civilisations and interactions with other Mediterranean cultures, the ancient Greeks and Romans set the foundations for much of today’s architecture, medicine, astronomy, literature, philosophy, drama, art, and more. The objects these civilisations left behind can help us unlock a window to the past to glimpse the lives of women and men in the Classical world, their religions, customs, and beliefs about life and death.

The National Museums Scotland Classical collection comprises around 3,000 ancient Greek, Roman, Cypriot and Etruscan objects, including about 300 Greek and Italian ceramic vases and more than 400 fine examples of ancient glass, as well as terracotta figurines, antefixes and architectural ornaments, coins, bronzes and stone sculpture.

Ancient Greek vases


Above: Lekythos decorated with a scene from Homer’s Illiad of Achilles delivering the body of Hector to his father King Priam, by the Edinburgh Painter, 5th century BC

Some of the most intriguing objects from the ancient Greek world are their painted vases. The images on the vases depict gods and heroes from Greek mythology, and aspects of ancient Greek religious life, but also notorious drinking parties. Some vases depict typically male activities, such as warfare and athletics, while others give insights into women’s domestic area of the house.

Kylix depicting a Greek hoplite slaying a Persian

Above: Kylix depicting a Greek hoplite slaying a Persian inside, by the Triptolemos painter, 5th century BC

The images on the vases are not their only important element. The vases’ shapes are also of great significance. Different shapes were used for different purposes, ranging from fish plates with special compartments for sauces and condiments used during dinner parties to elaborate cups and jugs for the drinking parties that followed after dinner. Certain vases were used by women for perfumes and wedding preparations, or held perfumes offered to the tombs of the deceased.

Fish-plate painted with an octopus and three fish (mullet, wrasse and bream) and two jellyfish

Above: Fish-plate painted with an octopus and three fish (mullet, wrasse and bream) and two jellyfish, Campanian, mid-4th century BC

See highlights from our collection on our Collections Search and discover for yourself how the forms of the vases and the images that decorate them are related. Through the vases, you can explore what ancient Greek gods and heroes looked like and get a glimpse of how ancient Greek men and women lived their lives.

Header image: Lebes gamikos of pottery decorated in red figure style with two standing figures of Eros, palmettes, key meander and scrollwork.

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