The Parthenon and its Sculptures in Roman Times (Part Two)

Last time I discussed the fullest ancient description we have of the Athenian Parthenon, which was written by Pausanias, a Greek traveller from Asia Minor in the mid 2nd C AD, the height of the Roman Empire. For Pausanias the main interest of the building was the giant gold and ivory statue of Athena that it housed, rather than its sculptural decoration – the so-called “Parthenon Marbles” – which have been universally praised in modern times and which are the source of the famous and ongoing feud between the Greek government and the British Museum, which has owned the bulk of them ever since the early 19th Century. I suggested that Pausanias’ indifference to the sculptures might tell us something about Roman period attitudes toward the Parthenon. While we tend to see the building as an architectural masterpiece and praise it for its work of art, for the Roman period Greeks it was, above all, a deeply sacred place of worship.

Pausanias doesn’t provide our only insight into the way the building was thought about in Roman Athens. In this piece I’d like to consider some archaeological evidence that seems to tell a different story. That evidence comes not from the Parthenon itself but rather from a Roman period building that stood in the Athenian Agora, the main public square of the city.

At the beginning of the Imperial period (late 1st C BC)| a huge theatre-like building or odeion was constructed in the middle of the agora. The building was probably paid for by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the star general, son-in-law and right-hand-man of the first Roman Emperor Augustus. A lot has been written about the impact this building had on the use of the agora but that is another story. For our purposes the building is interesting because of what happened to it in the middle of the 2nd Century AD. Excavations have revealed that after over a century of use the roof gave way and collapsed. The disaster was attributed by the excavators to a design flaw. The original auditorium had been enormous – it could have seated around 1,000 people – and construction techniques of the time were not really suited to span so large a space.

When the building was rebuilt, with a lot of infilling which reduced the auditorium to half its original size, it was spruced up with a new porch on the northern, entrance side, which incorporated a row of sculpted figural supports that took the form of giants and tritons, three of each. Triton, in Greek mythology, was the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite the god and goddess of the sea. He’s easy to recognize because he is shown as a sort of merman with the lower half of his body having the form of a fish. The other three figures have a more human form though their two legs end in snakes which curl back around the support against which they stand. They have been identified as giants, monsters who appear with snake-legs in other works of ancient art.

In late antiquity the odeion was destroyed and a large palatial complex built over its ruins. The statues were incorporated into the new building at roughly the spot where they had originally stood. Three have remained there ever since and can still be seen, surrounded by houses in paintings of Athens from before the agora was discovered and excavations began in the 1930s. These statues are what links the odeion to the Parthenon because the upper parts of the three tritons were deliberate and fairly accurate copies (two of them mirrored) of the figure of Poseidon, the god of the sea, from the Parthenon’s western pediment.

(Left) Triton from the odeion (Right) The Parthenon Poseidon
(Left) Triton from the odeion (Right) The Parthenon Poseidon

This copying was spotted by Homer Thompson, director of the Athenian Agora excavations from 1947-1968 and discussed in a detailed study of the odeion that he published in 1950. Thompson pointed out that the artists had clearly gone to great lengths to make the copied statues as accurate as possible because they even included an unnatural looking indention beneath the breastbone of the Poseidon on the new statues. Although the head of the Poseidon has been lost a drawing made in the 18th Century does exist and looks similar enough to the two surviving Triton’s heads to be confident that it was the whole of the Poseidon’s upper half that was copied and not just the torso, which does survive and is one of the pieces of the Parthenon Marbles still in Athens.

When architectural supports in the form of sculpted figures are seen in Greek or Roman architecture they usually portray defeated enemies. Being forced to hold up a building for eternity is hardly a sign of respect. Vitruvius, the early Augustan architect believed that the famous female Caryatid figures on the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis were statues of the women-folk of an enemy defeated by the Athenians in some obscure early war (whether he was right is hard to say). The giants were a race of powerful beings who had warred against the Olympian gods and were eventually defeated. This powerful and important myth helped explain for the Greeks how the ordered kosmos had come into being and was a popular scene for decorating Greek temples. A gigantomachy (fight against the giants) was depicted on the shield of the chryselephantine statue of Athena inside the Parthenon and on the metopes on the eastern side of that building. The giants were therefore an extremely familiar image to the Roman period Greeks and suitable figures to be portrayed holding up the porch of a building.

Recognizing these figures and linking them to Greek mythology, however, only brings us so far in understanding their meaning. These statues raise a number of interesting questions: Why were these figures in particular chosen as suitable for decorating the odeion in its second phase? Is there any significance that Triton, one of the gods and usually shown fighting against the giants, has also been made into an architectural support? Are these figures purely decorative or does the fact that they show gods and monsters have some deeper, potentially religious significance? Would the meaning of these statues have been understood equally well by all segments of society or were they making a statement aimed at some particular group within the community? Lastly, and crucially important for present purposes, what does it suggest about Athenian attitudes toward the Parthenon that they wanted to copy its sculptures in this way?

These are difficult questions to answer because there are no written sources from the period that even mention the sculptures. The reconstruction of the odeion must have taken place shortly before Pausanias visited Athens and he does mention the building but says nothing of the statues that decorated the porch. However, what we know of the use of the building and the cultural climate of the period in which it was made do allow some tentative answers.

In the mid 2nd Century AD, at the time the building was rebuilt, Greek culture – in particular Greek literary culture – was enjoying a revival which historians call the Second Sophistic. The Sophists, from which the movement takes its name, were highly skilled orators who could draw vast crowds to watch them deliver speeches, and could earn exorbitant sums teaching their skills to pupils. Throughout the Greek speaking eastern half of the Empire watching these orators declaim was a popular form of entertainment and actually participating in their activities was the hallmark of a cultivated elite lifestyle. The leading sophists were admitted to the inner circle of Roman Emperors, as teachers to their children or even as personal friends. The success of the movement probably owed much to interest that the emperors of the 2nd C took in Greek culture, beginning with Hadrian a celebrated philhellene and the first Roman Emperor to wear a beard like a Greek.

A curious feature of this cultural revival is that it was in almost every respect an extremely backward looking movement. It took as its model, Classical Athens, which was already in Roman times seen as a golden period of Greek history. The orators strove to deliver their speeches in Greek that was as close to the pure Attic dialect spoken in the 5th century BC as possible. The types of speeches they performed also often drew on episodes of Classical history, either recreating speeches from dramatic historical situations or else imagining themselves to be famous historical characters such as Demosthenes or Perikles placed in hypothetical situations. Second century Athens was able to exploit this fascination with its Classical past to become a major cultural center, drawing in tourists, philosophers, orators and students. Modern scholars sometimes describe it, perhaps slightly anachronistically, as becoming a “university town”.

Some of our best evidence for the activities of these sophists comes from a sort of group biography written by a man called Philostratos in the early 3rd Century AD. It is from Philostratos that we get the phrase “Second Sophistic”, the “First Sophistic”, or first age of the great public orators, being the Classical period at Athens. Philostratos also gives us our only evidence for the use of the odeion on the Athenian Agora in this period. He describes it serving as the venue for a public performance by one of these sophists and this is that allows us to make some headway in understanding the meaning of the sculpted giants and tritons.

The sophists who were using the building were connoisseurs of the culture of 5th Century Athens and it is therefore easy to imagine that it appealed to them to have a splendid new lecture hall decorated with Classical looking art. The grand porch with its sculpted supports was no doubt intended to impress the countless visitors to Athens. The level of detail that went into copying the Parthenon Poseidon for the three Tritons suggests, however, that this wasn’t merely a case of creating a Classical looking building. This was a deliberate sculptural quotation that those in the know were supposed to get. Whether everyone who came to Athens, or even everyone who lived in Athens, was expected to recognize the statues is difficult to say but I think we can be certain that the upper class educated sophists and their pupils would have done. The fact that the sculpture chosen came from the Parthenon surely suggests that the artwork of this building was particularly praised. Perhaps this suggests a more aesthetic appreciation of the Parthenon than seen in Pausanias’ description although it is worth stressing that the sculpture in question came from one of the building’s pediments, which Pausanias, as we saw last time, did describe.

This still doesn’t explain why Poseidon in particular was copied, or why Triton was chosen as a particularly suitable figure for decorating the new building. I believe that the choice must have been meaningful. We will probably never know for sure what that meaning was but at the risk of indulging in some wild speculation (and if a blog isn’t a good place for wild speculation that you couldn’t get away with in a peer reviewed journal then I don’t know where is) I do, however, have a theory.

The bases of the statues of giants and tritons were all decorated with the relief of an olive tree. This, as Homer Thompson already suggested, seems to be a reference to an important Athenian myth about a competition between Poseidon and Athena for who would become the patron deity of the city. Both gods offered the Athenians a gift – Posiedon, a salt spring, Athena, an olive tree. The Athenians chose the olive tree as the more useful gift and thereby chose Athena as their most important goddess. This struggle between Poseidon and Athena was the very myth that was depicted on the west pediment of the Parthenon, as we saw last time.

I believe, therefore, that when viewers saw these architectural supports they were supposed to think not so much of Triton but rather of Poseidon himself. Poseidon was associated with brute force and the wild powers of nature, while Athena was a goddess of wisdom and intellect. Making Poseidon serve as an architectural support, perhaps through his son as stand-in, would have been a good way of making a statement about the merits of learning and education – a highly suitable theme for a lecture hall.

Taking this line of thought a step further led me to wonder if the reason that the odeion needed to be rebuilt might not also be significant here. The original roof had, as already mentioned, stood for well over a century, which suggests that the design wasn’t quite as poor as modern scholars have tended to assume. A fairly common reason for buildings collapsing in ancient Greece was as the result of earthquakes. Poseidon as well as being the god of the sea was also believed to be responsible for seismic activity and was known as the “Earthshaker”. Might the building have collapsed as the result of an earthquake? Making Poseidon/Triton into an architectural support might then have been a way of making him do penance for the devastation, the type of joke that would have certainly appealed to some of those who were counted among the sophists (I’m thinking of someone like Lucian for those more familiar with the period). Alternatively, it might have been a way of trying to ward off future earthquakes by giving Poseidon’s son the job of holding the building up.

My earthquake theory is, of course, pure conjecture but there is something about the statues themselves that make such cultural readings possible. The very fact that there are three representations of the same figure from Greek mythology, Triton, makes it hard to interpret this as a mythological scene in the same way as the Parthenon’s pediments. Copying the Parthenon Poseidon and reproducing it threefold in a very different context than the original feels curiously modern (or perhaps post-modern?). A remarkably similar use of Classical sculptural quotations can be seen from around the same time as the odeion at at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli in Italy. There a series of caryatids, copying those from the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis, were set up surrounding an outdoor swimming pool. Unlike the reliefs and sculptural decorations of buildings from the Classical period both Hadrian’s caryatids and the odeion giants and tritons look like a much more decorative, playful use of art. Seen in this light the odeion sculptures hardly seem to suggest much reverence on the part of the Roman period Athenians toward the Parthenon or its sculptures. We might wonder if anyone who had seen the Tritons could ever take the Parthenon Poseidon quite so seriously again.

Caryatids (Left) Erechtheion at Athens (Right) Hadrian's villa at Tivoli
Caryatids (Left) Erechtheion at Athens (Right) Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli

There is, however, a danger here of going too far in imposing modern assumptions about art upon the Roman period Greeks. Even if there was something playful about the odeion sculptures does this mean that they couldn’t, at the same time, as representations of gods and mythical beings, evoke a religious feeling? It is worth noting that the only thing Pausanias says about the odeion is that there was a statue of the god Dionysos there that was worth seeing. This reminds us that religion was everywhere in the Roman period Greek city, as it had been in Classical times. This was not a temple but even a lecture hall could be a place to encounter the divine.

Last week I saw a lecture in Oxford in which Katherine Dunbabin, professor emerita at McMaster University, discussed some scenes of Dionysos from mosaics and paintings in Roman period Greek houses. She argued that if we try to decide whether these were merely cultural representations or whether they were expressions of religious belief we are creating a false opposition. Dionysiac scenes could be used to entertain guests in a banquet hall, while at the same time causing them to reflect on the myths and rites relating to one of their most important deities. The same is also possibly true of the odeion scultpures. While raising a smile they may also have reminded viewers of the importance of Poseidon and the story of his contest with Athena as one of the key origin myths of Athenian culture

(Left) Figures from the Parthenon West Pediment (Right) Figures from Temple F at Eleusis
(Left) Figures from the Parthenon West Pediment (Right) Figures from Temple F at Eleusis

There is another piece of evidence for copying of the Parthenon sculptures which does indeed suggest a more religious attitude. At Eleusis, a very important old sanctuary in Athenian territory, around the same time that the odeion was rebuilt a small temple or treasury was constructed, possibly in honour of Sabina, the wife of the emperor Hadrian. The pediment of that building was filled with a scaled down (1/3 the original size) replica of the scene from the Parthenon’s west pediment, the very same scene from which the odeion’s Triton was taken, depicting the competition between Athena and Poseidon. Once again, we can be certain that viewers were meant to recognize the sculptures and think of the Parthenon when they saw them. In this deeply sacred context, however, it is hard to question that these sculptures were meant to be taken seriously.

Looking at the evidence for attitudes toward the Parthenon in Roman times reminds us of the ways in which the meaning of monuments can change over time and that ways of looking at monuments and works of art in different times and cultures were not necessarily the same as our own. Accessing the meanings of ancient monuments is no easy matter, especially when we lack literary sources that might tell us what they mean. Looking at them in context – both the cultural context of their time and their spatial context – can however help us arrive at some answers and, just as importantly, to think about the sort of questions we should be asking.

Although I’m not only interested in architectural sculpture and my research doesn’t only focus on Athens, some of the issues that I’ve looked at here are issues that I’m going to be exploring further in the course of my project over the next two and a half years.


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