The replica gods of Roman Messene

As well as preparing for the upcoming conference on Public Statues Across Time and Cultures – 28-29 September, do check out the programme– I’ve been working recently on an article about the different settings where statues were set up in the city of Messene. If you’ve never been there Messene is an incredible site in the southwest Peloponnese in the region that was liberated from Spartan control in the late Classical period – I’ve blogged about it here. This isn’t the follow-up I promised a while ago to my piece on the statues of the Messenian Artemision (I will get round to that soon) but something else about the statues of gods that are known to have stood in various places around the city.

Hermes of the Andros type, found in the gymnasium at Messene

Anyone who’s visited a museum gallery displaying statues from antiquity will, I’m sure, have seen the label “Roman copy of Greek original”. It’s a fascinating phenomenon. At the time of the Roman Empire certain well-known statue types in crop up everywhere, many of them thought to be replicas in marble of much older pieces of sculpture by Greek artists that have long since disappeared and which were probably made of bronze. Seeing all those near identical Venuses and Herculeses it’s easy to imagine them decorating Roman villas and bathhouses – which they surely did – and to find them somehow reassuringly familiar. As pieces for decoration, designed to advertise the culture and learning of their owners, the Roman way of displaying and relating to these statues seems little different to the way in which English gentry displayed ancient statues in their 18th century mansions, a subject explored in a fascinating and beautifully illustrated book that I read recently and highly recommend – “Owning the Past” by Ruth Guilding.

Now, one of the puzzling things about this Roman habit of copying Greek statues is just what it meant to the Greeks whose ancestors had made the statues that were being copied. In Greek culture in Classical and Hellenistic times statues of gods don’t generally seem to have been made just to serve as pieces of art but, more often were set up as objects of religious devotion, whether to physically embody the power of the god or as a votive honour. So how did the Greeks respond to new Roman ideas about sculpture once they became part of the Empire?

Of course there are sculptures of gods from Roman Greece that do seem to be largely decorative, such as the Tritons and Giants from the 2nd century AD rebuilding of the Odeion in the Athenian Agora (though even here I’ve argued that something more meaningful might be going on) but the thing that makes Messene so intriguing is that statues have been found that are recognizable copies of well-known types but which seem to have stood in decidedly religious settings.

First, from the gymnasium a Heracles and a Hermes, both of types known from other Roman copies have been found. There’s a photo of the Hermes at the top of this post – all that survives of the Herakles are fragments. A gymnasium, like a bathhouse, is admittedly just the kind of place where we might expect purely decorative sculpture in the Roman period and Herakles and Hermes are gods that are often seen in such settings and generally interpreted in what we might call purely secular terms – as images of the brawn and brains that young men exercising and studying in the gymnasium were meant to be cultivating. The gymnasium at Messene, however was uniquely, home to a number of public burials from the period, which suggests it was thought of as, in some sense, a religious space. The statue of Hermes may even have stood atop one of these grave monuments as statues of this type are known to have done elsewhere in the Roman world in cemeteries.

A third statue found in the gymnasium is an example of one of the most copied of all in antiquity – Polycleitus’ Doryphoros or spear bearer. Nobody knows for sure who this famous statue was meant to represent when the original was made in the 5th century BC but Petros Themelis, the excavator of Messene has argued that here it may have been used to represent Theseus, the Athenian hero who killed the minotaur, whose statue Pausanias also saw in the gymnasium.

The Doryphoros (from, left: Pompeii; right: Messene)

Perhaps even more intriguing is a piece of a statue of Aphrodite found on the agora. It is just a bit of a thigh but that is enough to allow it to be recognised as belonging to the famous “Crouching Venus” type known from countless examples. Some of you may have seen the one displayed in last year’s “Defining Beauty” exhibition at the British Museum.

Crouching Venus with Messene thigh fragment overlain*

Pausanias tells us that Aphrodite had a temple on the agora at Messene and while we can’t be sure that this statue came from the temple the coincidence of location least raises that possibility and suggests that at Messene this statue too was thought of as having some deeper religious meaning than we might normally be inclined to ascribe to the work.

Statue of Isis Pelagia found at Messene
Statue of Isis Pelagia found at Messene

There seem to be other examples of copies of statues at Messene in religious settings too though not of such well-known types. Two fantastic statues of Isis, one found in the sanctuary of that goddess, the other found in the theatre but surely also originating in the Iseion, Professor Themelis has argued to be copies of older Hellenistic models. The first can be seen in the site museum and is of Isis Pelagia, goddess of the sea, striding forth on the prow of a ship.


Statue of Isis suckling the baby Horus, from Messene

The other shows the her suckling the baby Horus, a well-known image from antiquity that may well have influenced later representations of the Virgin Mary. It was found more recently and so is not yet on display. Neither type has exact parallels elsewhere in the Empire but the iconography of both is known from other media such as reliefs and coins which makes it likely that they too were what we would call copies. A 3rd century Artemis, found in what seems to have been some kind of public hall bears a close resemblance – thought it is far from identical (look at the clothes, hairstyle and stance) – to one that I saw earlier this year at Blenheim palace. While there’s no reason to think that this building had any particular religious significance the other examples mean that we can’t rule out that the statue did.

Statues of Artemis (from, left: Messene; right: Blenheim Palace)

What this all comes down to is that thinking spatially about the setting in which statues were set up can help defamiliarise them and open our minds to new ways of looking at them. It’s easy to think of Roman period statues as largely decorative or allegorical because that’s how we’ve been looking at statues for the past few hundred years but there’s every reason to think that the Roman period Greeks saw them very differently.

And thinking spatially about the meaning of statues isn’t just worth doing for antiquity. The different ways that cultures throughout history have used and responded to public statues is a subject that I don’t think has received anywhere near the attention it deserves which is the reason why I’ve organised a conference around that very theme. So, to end as I began – with a plug – it’s an exciting programme with papers on Roman Palmyra, Hellenistic Athens, Ancient China, the Renaissance and lots more. And the event isn’t just meant for stuffy academics so do check it out. Registration closes on 21st September.

Hopefully I’ll see you there……



*The image of Venus is taken from Professor Themelis’ excellent guide to the site:

Themelis, P. (2003). Ancient Messene. Athens, Hellenic Ministry of Culture – Archaeological Receipts Fund.



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