Hellenistic Kings in Roman Athens

A name that’s cropped up quite a bit in this blog is Pausanias. He was a Greek from Asia Minor, who travelled extensively around Greece in the 2nd century AD writing a description of the country at that time, focussing mainly on old and sacred monuments. His work survives and is an invaluable – though partial and in many ways problematic – guide to the types of monuments that could be seen in Greek cities at that time. Recently I’ve been busy working through his descriptions of Messene, Corinth and Athens cataloguing the monuments he mentions for a database I’m working on (on which, more next time!). Rereading his description of Athens has set me to wondering about what’s always struck me as a curious feature of his description of that city – the sheer number of statues of Hellenistic kings he says he saw there.

The so-called Therme Ruler – a surviving bronze statue of a Hellenistic king?

These kings dominated the Mediterranean from the 3rd-1st centuries BC, ruling over territories that had been carved out of the empire of Alexander the Great by his generals following his death. Historians call the period “Hellenistic” because it was a time when Greek (or Hellenic) culture was spread over a larger area than previously. Originally, the three most powerful kingdoms were Macedonia, Alexander’s homeland in northern Greece, Egypt, and the vast Seleucid Empire that at one time covered most of Asia Minor and much of the near East. Over the course of the centuries the fortunes of the big three waxed and waned, borders changed, mainly as the result of war, and various smaller kingdoms also rose to prominence. Eventually the fate of all of these territories was to be absorbed into the expanding Roman Empire, with the Hellenistic period coming to an end when the last of them, Egypt, was made a province under the first emperor Augustus. Throughout these centuries southern and central Greece, the part of the ancient world I’m working on, found itself stuck between these great powers and struggling to assert its independence, often through trying to play them off against each other.

Now, in Pausanias’ description of Athens he mentions seeing some 11 statues of different Hellenistic kings, most of them on the city’s agora. All of the major dynasties and a couple of the lesser ones are represented. There’s no other evidence at all that most of these statues existed; the inscribed bases haven’t been found and the statues themselves, probably of bronze have long since disappeared, melted down like most bronze statues from antiquity. They probably looked a bit like the few statuettes of kings that do still exist or like the so-called Therme Ruler, found in a bathhouse in Rome and thought to be the only full-sized statue of a Hellenistic king to survive from the ancient world.

We know that it was fairly common in the Hellenistic period for cities to honour kings with statues, mainly as a thank-you for benefactions bestowed (grain, military aid, payment for festivals or buildings) or as an attempt at flattery to encourage such gifts. We also know, from other sources, that Athens definitely did honour certain kings in this way during their lifetimes. However, the number of statues of different kings reported by Pausanias at Athens is unparalleled for any other city, which raises all sorts of questions both about what was going on in Athens in Hellenistic times and about the survival of older statues in Greek cities into the Roman period:

Firstly, did Athens really set up far more statues of kings than any other city? At other cities statues where statues of kings are attested – in written sources or in inscriptions – they typically don’t number more than a handful. The position of Athens was, in Hellenistic times, in many ways unique and that might explain the large number. The city was then already revered for its cultural achievements in the Classical period – the art, literature, architecture, philosophy, still marvelled at today – and Hellenistic kings, keen to show off how cultured they were, took a keen interest in the city and showered it with gifts of the type mentioned above. The so-called Stoa of Attalos, that today can be seen lining one side of the agora, is a modern reconstruction of just such a benefaction, paid for by Attalos II of Pergamon, a kingdom in northern Turkey that grew to prominence in the 2nd Century BC. It is, therefore, just possible that the city really did set up more statues of kings than other cities did.

The Stoa of Attalos at Athens – a modern reconstruction of a 2nd C BC building

On the other hand, however, Athens was the first city Pausanias described in his book and, at that time, he doesn’t seem to have had as clear an idea about what his project was about as he did later. He tells us explicitly in his description of Athens that he thought that the Hellenistic period of Greek history hadn’t received the attention it deserved (he doesn’t use the word “Hellenistic”, of course, – that’s a modern invention) and he uses his mentions of various statues at Athens as springboards to lengthy digressions on the history of various kings and dynasties. This means that it is also possible that he only mentions the statues at Athens as an excuse to tell us these stories and doesn’t mention statues of kings at other cities simply because by that point he’s already dealt with the period and, in any case, seems to have lost interest in the period.

Secondly, did more statues of Hellenistic kings survive into the Roman period at Athens than at other cities? We have evidence, as mentioned above, for other cities setting up statues of kings in Hellenistic times but no evidence that these statues were still standing in the 2nd century AD. Here the problems are similar to the first question. Did Pausanias refer to more statues of kings at Athens elsewhere because there were more statues – perhaps they’d been removed at other cities – or just because he is being highly selective in what he describes.

Another important question is when were the statues at Athens set up? Where these statues have been considered in modern scholarship people have tended to assume that they must have been set up in the lifetimes of the king in question. This connects to a more general tendency to assume that Pausanias’ references to monuments are fairly good evidence for the history of earlier periods. In the case of our statues of kings, in some cases this is a plausible assumption – we know from other sources certain kings had a definite link with Athens and had statues erected there, such as Demetrios Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”): he freed Athens from a tyrant in the late 4th century, had all sorts of honours lavished on him by the citizens, including a gilded statue in the centre of the agora and being worshipped like a god, only to then act like a tyrant himself, installing himself in the Parthenon and throwing wild parties there. Pausanias saw one of his statues on the agora. Pausanias also reports several statues of various Ptolemies – the kings of Egypt who all had the same name, Ptolemy – and we know that the dynasty made gifts of grain to the city in the 3rd century and that one of the kings built a gymnasium there in the 2nd. Again, it is quite likely that one or more of these kings would have had statues granted them in their lifetimes.

However, it is less easy to find a connection to Athens for certain other kings Pausanias mentions, such as Lysimachos one of Alexander’s generals who, for a short time ruled in Thrace in the northern Aegean, or Pyrrhos, king of Epirus, to whom we still owe the phrase “Pyrrhic Victory” from his expedition into Sicily to fight the Romans which resulted in a win that nearly wiped out his own army. Pausanias even saw statues of Alexander the Great, and his father Philip II of Macedon, and we know that there was no love lost between these kings and the Athenians – Athens fought wars to stop Philip’s increasing expansion into southern Greece and showed its distaste for Alexander’s rule over it by rebelling against the Macedonians as soon as he died. As the Hellenistic period progressed, and certainly by Roman times, these old grievances lost their sting and Alexander’s stature increased to legendary proportions as one of the great heroes of Greek history. It is therefore almost certain that his and Philip’s statues were set up at Athens posthumously. Possibly then, the same is true for other of the statues Pausanias reports.

We know that the Athenians did at times set up statues for historic figures, often many years after their deaths, such as the statues of the 6th century lawgiver Solon that stood in the agora which cant have been set up before the 5th century when public portrait statues began to become common. Or those of the Classical 5th century tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides that were put up in the theatre at the end of the 4th century. So it’s likely then that Philip and Alexander’s statues were also posthumous, which raises the possibility that some of the others might have been as well. Was the statue of Ptolemy I really set up in his lifetime at the very beginning of the Hellenistic period or might it, for example, have been erected some time later. Perhaps – to raise just one possibility – when the city honoured a later Ptolemy in the 2nd Century BC for building the gymnasium they also set up a monument to his famous ancestor. And might some of these statues even have been set up in Roman times during some burst of enthusiasm for this period in the city’s history?

The last question raised by Pausanias’ testimony is: where were these statues originally set up? Even if we suppose that most of them were set up in the lifetimes of the people they represent, or in the course of the Hellenistic period, as opposed to say, a couple of decades before Pausanias’ visit, we still can’t be sure if they had originally stood where he saw them. We know that in the time of the first Emperor Augustus a whole temple from a village in Athens’ territory was dismantled, transported to the agora and reconstructed there. By comparison statues would have been fairly easy to move. The sheer concentration of statues of the same time of subject – Hellenistic kings – in the same place – the agora – could be explained simply by this being thought of as the natural place for this type of monument. On the other hand it does raise suspicions that they might have been collected at some point in time to form a thematic collection. Perhaps for some reason the Roman period Athenians shared Pausanias’ fascination for the Hellenistic period of their history and had gathered the statues together sometime under the Empire. Even if they had always stood in the agora there’s a chance they might have been moved around within the square. Apart from the temple that was moved there under Augustus there was also an enormous odeion (indoor theatre) built there at the same time that took up a lot of room. At least one scholar has assumed that the statues of Hellenistic kings originally stood where the odeion was built.

Reconstruction model of the Athenian Agora in the 2nd C AD. The Odeon is the big, tall building in the centre

In short, Pausanias’ references to all these Hellenistic kings in Roman Athens raise more questions than we’re able to answer. Asking these questions is worthwhile because they alert us to some of the key issues relating to ancient public monuments that are worth thinking about further. They also remind us how fragmentary our evidence and of how looking at ancient written sources, archaeology and inscriptions can result in very different impressions – after all, there’s no archaeological evidence for these statues of kings at Athens so without Pausanias we wouldn’t know that they’d ever been there at all. The fact that we don’t have an archaeological evidence for such statues at other cities in Greece from Roman contexts, therefore doesn’t necessarily mean that these places weren’t also full of such statues. The fact that Pausanias, doesn’t mention them elsewhere is frustrating but it too doesn’t mean he didn’t see them. For all sorts of reasons, as mentioned here, he might just have chosen to ignore them.




2 thoughts on “Hellenistic Kings in Roman Athens

  1. You note that many or most of those statues were posthumous, but is striking that, if the eleven statues includes Philip and Alexander, then more than half (P, A, Lysimachus, Demetrius, Ptolemy I(?), Pyrrhus) span the end of the fourth century and first two decades of the third. I confess I haven’t gone back to look at the monuments in Athens or Pausanias’ descriptions, but that is quite a grouping. I suspect that if Athens legitimately had more statues to Hellenistic kings it would be because a larger number of kings offered it their patronage. Corinth and other Balkan cities would be interesting comparanda, but I’d be almost more curious to see Athens compared with a city like Rhodes.


    1. Thank you for reading and for your interesting comment. I should stress that I’m not claiming any of these statues definitely *were* set up posthumously only that they might have been. The trouble is that when our only source for them postdates the lives of these kings by over 400 years we can’t say much about why they were set up. I was just trying to point out that we should perhaps be less confident than some scholars have been that they must have been contemporary with their subjects.

      You’re definitely right that comparison with other cities would be interesting but that is the whole problem – we don’t have this kind of information for other cities. Corinth, because it was sacked by the Romans in 144, is notorious for the lack of pre-Roman inscriptions so if there were lots of statues of Hellenistic kings their inscribed bases have been lost. Pausanias also doesn’t mention seeing any there though that, as mentioned in the post, doesn’t mean they weren’t there even after the sack. I’m not sure about Rhodes – it’s outside the area I’m working on – but it’s possible there’s some epigraphic evidence but I doubt that there are many bases for kings there.

      So, the problem is that the state of the evidence makes it very hard to know if Athens really was exceptional in the numbers of statues of kings or if it is just the evidence (Pausanias’ description) that is exceptional. I should also stress that I’m most interested, not in whether cities set up statues of kings in Hellenistic times, but whether they were still there under the Empire, which complicates things yet further.


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