Discovering the obvious – the Blenheim sarcophagus

Earlier this month a story that made a splash in the national and international press and that was all over my twitter feed was the ‘discovery’ of an ancient Roman sarcophagus at Blenheim palace. The story was reported by the Daily Mail, the BBC, the Oxford Mail, ITV News,the Times and the New York Times among others. The newspapers reported that an antiques expert has identified the piece, finely carved with Dionysiac reliefs being used as a flowerpot in the palace grounds. The managers of the estate were apparently unaware of what the object really was and have since had it restored and moved to inside the palace.


I’ve only now gotten around to writing about this because I was bit ill when the news appeared (one of the hazards of having small children) and a bit busy with other things since then. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, though, because the thing is I remembered seeing the sarcophagus myself on my first visit to Blenheim last April. Above is the photo I took of it – you can see the date if you want proof I really spotted it before it made the news.

My first reaction was to think that I should have been the one to ‘discover’ the sarcophagus and have had my fifteen minutes of fame (the antiques expert who did discover it remains anonymous). I soon realised, however, how extremely unlikely it is that I really could have been the first one to have realised that this plant box was really a 1700 year old Roman grave monument.

Blenheim is within a short bus ride of Oxford, home to the largest Classics Faculty in the world. Over the years countless academics and students must have visited the palace and known immediately what they were looking at. Among the hundreds of thousands of tourists who go to Blenheim each year there must also have been quite a few who knew what it was. When I mentioned to my wife that I was going to write this blog piece and told her about the Blenheim sarcophagus she said nonchalantly ‘Oh yes, I remember seeing that’. She’s not an archaeologist but she’s been with me to quite a few museums and the truth is that you really don’t need to be an expert to recognise a Roman sarcophagus once you’ve seen a few.

I’ve now done some very superficial internet research to see if anybody else had mentioned the object anywhere prior to the discovery and sure enough they had. Zahra Newby, an expert in Roman Art based at Warwick University discusses it in an article in a book on sarcophagi published in 2011. It is also mentioned in the 1882 publication Ancient Marbles in Great Britain by Adolf Michaelis (sadly the page in question isn’t viewable online so I’ll have to wait till I can get to the library to see what it says). By searching through Twitter I found that Peter Stewart, head of CARC (the Classical Art Research Centre at the Classics Faculty in Oxford) pointed out there that the sarcophagus is included in this publication when news of the ‘discovery’ broke two weeks ago. I’m sure he must have visited Blenheim and seen the sarcophagus himself.

I also found a drawing of the sarcophagus in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (viewable on their website) by the early 16th century artist Girolamo da Carpi. The drawing is particularly interesting because it preserves details that have now been lost to damage or to wear. The website calls the picture the ‘Blenheim Sarcophagus’. That can’t of course be what it was known as when the drawing was made because the sarcophagus must still have been in Italy at the time and because Blenheim Palace wouldn’t even be built for another century and a half (between 1705 and 1722 and named after the Battle of Blenheim of 1704). It seems unlikely, however, (and I should follow this up) that the name has only been given to the drawing in the last few weeks so this too seems to be further evidence that the sarcophagus was already rather well known. Finally, in 2010 somebody anonymously posted a photo of the flowerpot on TripAdvisor with the comment that it ‘looks like a Roman lenos sarcophagus’.

So, it is clear enough that over the years plenty of people – probably far more than my brief survey uncovered – have recognised the sarcophagus for what it really was. So why is it only now that it made the news?

The truth must surely be that everybody who saw it and recognised it simply assumed that the people at Blenheim were fully aware what it was. That was certainly my assumption. I found it a shame that it was outside and exposed to the elements and would have preferred the board in front of it to have given some information about it instead of saying ‘Keep off the grass’ but I thought that the sarcophagus had probably been placed there on a whim of one of the past Dukes of Marlborough and had been left there because it was now part of the history of the place and everybody had grown used to it. Not for a moment did I think about approaching someone who worked at the palace and saying ‘Hey, do you realise that ornamental plant box is really a Roman tomb monument?”

I also suspect that the monetary value of the sarcophagus is a big part of the story. I was drawn to the object by its historic interest as a relic of both the ancient world and the great period of the gentleman collectors in the 18th century when I would imagine it was brought to Britain. I had no idea that it would be valued, as it now has been, at £300,000. It took a very particular kind of expert for the alarm bells to start ringing at the thought of this rare, and extremely expensive object, being slowly but steadily worn away by the British rain – somebody who knows both about the market value of ancient art and knows that people who run historic properties sometimes don’t understand the nature of the objects they house. In other words it wasn’t so much a question of ‘discovering’ the sarcophagus as having the insight not to take for granted what so many others evidently have taken for granted over the years.

I suppose that the lesson to be drawn here is: never be afraid to point out the obvious. The next time I visit a stately home and see the marble head of an emperor being used as a doorstop or an Athenian kylix put down as a dog bowl I’ll make sure I speak up.


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.


Public Statues Across Time and Cultures


It is a pleasure to be able to announce that registration is now open for conference that I have been organising on “Public Statues across Time and Cultures” which will take place at Lincoln College, Oxford on 28th and 29th September. Over two days leading historians, art historians and archaeologists from the U.S., Europe and the UK will present papers exploring the role played by public statues in historical cultures ranging from ancient China to Renaissance Italy, from Palmyra to Georgian England. I am extremely pleased with the final line up (although there is one slot still to fill due to somebody having to pull out) and am really looking forward to what is going to be a fascinating and fun event.

Throughout history and across cultures people have set up statues in public spaces – to honour rulers, to reward benefactors, to worship gods and goddesses or simply to admire. There’s been a lot of fascinating research into the role of public statues in particular societies but, in my opinion, not enough consideration given to the bigger picture of differences and similarities in the ways in which different cultures have used and responded to their statues.It is hoped that bringing together experts working on similar issues but for different times and places will suggest new perspectives for thinking about the ways that statues have been used around the world throughout history.

The event is open to anybody with an interest in sculpture, public space or comparative history and will be taking place in Lincoln College’s wonderful new conference centre, which only opened last year.


You can register for the event by following this link to the online storeThere is a charge of £7.50 per day to cover the cost of the room and refreshments. You are also more than welcome to pay and sign up for the optional lunch (£13.50 per day).

Please not that registration will close on 21st September.

For any questions please send me an email or leave a comment below.

Here is the full programme:

Public statues across Time and Cultures

 A two-day international conference

Lincoln College, Oxford

28th-29th September 2016

This event is generously supported by the Marie Curie Fellowship, John Fell Fund, the Zilkha Fund and the Craven Committee.


Day one – Wednesday 28th September

10:00 Opening – Dr. Christopher Dickenson (Oxford)

10.30 Dr. Matthew Craske (Oxford Brookes) “The erection of public monuments to historical figures and the politics of nostalgia in early Hanoverian England”

11:30 Tea and coffee

12:00 Prof. Sheila Dillon (Duke University) “Public Sacred Space, Private Portrait Statues: the case of the City Eleusinion in Athens”

13:00 Lunch for speakers and chairs, optional for delegates

14:00 Dr. Peter Dent (University of Bristol) “Looking up in Public: Subordinating the Viewer in the Squares of Medieval and Renaissance Italy”

15:00 Tea and coffee

15:30 Dr. Kathleen Christian (Open University) “‘Statues in Renaissance Rome and the Possesso of Leo X, 1513”

16:30 Prof. Lukas Nickel (University of Vienna): “Public Sculpture in Early Imperial China, 3rd to 2nd century BC”

17:30 Reception

Day Two – Thursday 29th September

9:30 Prof. Rubina Raja (Aarhus University) “Public display of statuary in Palmyra – between tradition and innovation”

10:30 Dr. Paroma Chatterjee (University of Michigan) “Ancient statues as markers of time in the Parastaseis and Theophanes Continuatus”

11:30 Tea and coffee

12:00 Dr. Campbell Price (Manchester Museum) “How accessible was elite temple sculpture in Pharaonic Egypt?”

13:00 Lunch for speakers and chairs, optional for delegates

14: 00 Dr. Stijn Bussels (Leiden University) “Shiver and Admire in the Dutch Golden Age. Artus Quellinus’ Statues in the Amsterdam Tribunal”

15:00 Tea and coffee

15:30 Dr Faik Gür (Özyeğin University)  “High Modernism and the Politics of Public Statuary in Turkey”

16:30 Summing up and general discussion



Statues in situ – the Messenian Artemision

The key issues at the heart of my Monuments of Roman Greece project is how the meaning of statues and other monuments were shaped by their surroundings. Drawing on archaeological, epigraphic and literary evidence I’m trying to build up as complete a picture as possible of the spatial setting of individual monuments and types of monuments. It is very rare that the three types of evidence come together to give you the feeling that you’re able to (almost) fully reconstruct a particular monumental space but over the last few days I’ve been reading up on a fascinating set of statues for which that is the case: the statues of the Artemision at Messene.

Loyal followers of this blog might remember that I visited Messene on my trip to Greece last year. The city, in the southwest Peloponnese, was founded in the 4th Century BC when the Thebans liberated the region from the oppression of Spartan rule. That made it a relative new comer to the Greek urban scene and almost all of the visible remains date to a period of prosperity that seems to have lasted from the late Hellenistic period through to the height of the Roman Empire.

Areal photo of the Asklepieion (from


Reconstruction plan of the Messenian Asklepieion

The Artemision or “Oikos (house) of Artemis” as it is often called was a smallish room that was part of a larger religious complex dedicated to the god Asklepios (marked K on the map above). Asklepios is best known as the god of medicine but in Messene – a testament to the diversity of Greek religion – he seems to have been a more civic god. The Asklepieion, which is remarkably well preserved consisted of a central courtyard dominated by a temple to the god himself surrounded by a continuous colonnade behind which were various rooms. In the eastern wing was a small theatre-like meeting space, perhaps for political gatherings or religious performances. Inthe western wing was a row of so-called “oikoi” (plural of oikos) dedicated to various heroes and gods of local importance.

We happen to know which gods and heroes were housed where because the 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias tells us. From south to north they were: (i) Apollo and the Muses, (ii) a personification of the city of Thebes, Herakles and Epaminondas (the Theban general who liberated the area from the Spartans), (iii) Tyche (Fortune) and (iv)Artemis. Pausanias also tells us that the artist who created most of these statues (all except that of Epaminondas) was a local man called Damophon who’s work on religious statues is known from other passages in Pausanias and from various inscriptions found at Messene and elsewhere in the Peloponnese. Damophon seems to have been active in the late 3rd/early 2nd century BC. This evidence makes him the Hellenistic author who we know most about. There are also some amazing pieces of surviving sculpture by Damophon from a sanctuary at place called Lykosoura in the Peloponnese which I (very nearly) visited on my trip last year.

Head of Apollo by Damophon, Messenian Asklepieion


Herakles Messene
Head of Herakles by Damophon, Messenian Asklepieion

To return to Messene, as if Pausanias’ description weren’t interesting enough, fragments of some of Damophons statues were also found within the oikoi of the Asklepieion including some pieces of the cult statue of Artemis. By the time Pausanias saw the statue it would have been standing on the base at the back of its Oikos, which also, incredibly, survives for over three centuries. While the statues in the other oikoi might not have been the focus of religious worship it’s clear that the statue of Artemis was what we can conveniently call a cult statue because outside the oikos in the central open space of the square was an altar on which sacrifices would have been made to it. Pausanias refers to the statue of Artemis Phosphoros (Light Bearing) so even though not enough of the statue survives to be completely sure what she looked it is probably reasonable to imagine her holding aloft a torch. The chamber itself would probably have been fairly dark and may well have been illuminated by torchlight, perhaps only at times of cultic significance.

This already brings us spine-tinglingly close to the experience an ancient worshipper would have had when worshipping the goddess but there is more. For a start there’s an older temple of Artemis just outside the main square so we know that the cult must be one of the oldest and most important in the city. We also know that for some reason that the Hellenistic Messenians were keen to integrate the cult within their new Asklepieion complex so as to give the goddess a place alongside the other heroes and gods considered to be of particularly local significance; the entire complex is generally seen as a programmatic expression of Messenian identity during a period of political and cultural ascendance.

The most remarkable thing about the Artemision, however, is that within it several monument bases were discovered (!) bearing inscriptions (!) together with no less than 8 (!) of the statues that once stood on them. The statues are all headless – presumably vandalised like the statue of Artemis itself by the Christians of a later era – but are otherwise very well preserved. Five are of young girls, three of older priestess, all of whom served the goddess in some aspect of her cult. Together the inscriptions and pieces of sculpture provide some tantalising insights into the nature of the worship of Artemis in the building as well as into the way in which statues were used to make religious and political statements and to shape the cultic experience. But more on these statues next time…..

Putting monuments in boxes – or the trials and tribulations of setting up a research database

I’m pleased to be say that of last week my “Monuments of Roman Greece” project has its own website ( The main feature of the website is that it gives access to a searchable database of public monuments in Greek cities. Both the website and the database are works-in-progress. A more user-friendly search platform is still being developed and I’m still busy expanding the catalogue of monuments. But I wanted to get it online as soon as possible both so that people could start using it and so that, hopefully, I can get some feedback on it. I’ve been meaning to write a blog piece about the database for some time now and now seems an opportune moment.

Screenshot 2016-03-22 14.08.41
Screenshot of one of my database entries

The intention behind the database is to bring together things that were once found together but which have become separated, both through the chance survival of different types of evidence and the practices of modern scholarship. I’m talking, of course, about the statues, tombs, carved reliefs and other monuments that filled the public spaces of Greek cities under the Roman Empire. Few of these monuments survive intact but evidence for hundreds of them does survive in the form of (broken) pieces of sculpture, inscribed statue bases or mentions by ancient authors. The basic premise behind my project is that not enough attention has been paid to the extent to which spatial setting contributed to the meaning of ancient public monuments. I’m interested in questions such as how setting up different types monument in the same space – for example statues of benefactors and gods in a city’s agora – might have had an effect on how such monuments were read and experienced, how different spaces were frequented by different groups of people who would have been the audience for these monuments.

Probably the biggest challenge in putting the database together was deciding on the different categories of monument and public space that I want to be able to distinguish especially because one of the key aims of my research is to test the usefulness of the distinctions we usually tend to draw between ancient monuments, and statues in particular. Labelling is reassuring because it gives us a feeling that we understand whatever subject we’re studying but that feeling can be misleading. In the case of ancient monument, I’m not so sure that the distinctions we draw between, say, portraits statues set up as political honours and those set up as votive offerings to the gods, or even between portrait statues and statues of emperors, heroes, and gods were anywhere near as clear-cut in the ancient world as in they are in academic books and articles.

All of these different statues spoke a similar visual language and, crucially, stood side-by-side in the same areas of public space. This created potential for ambiguity so that a statue of a muscular nude athlete could be mistaken on first glance for a hero or a long-dead Hellenistic king. It also meant that anybody who was granted a permanent likeness of themselves in stone or bronze had something in common with the gods that their fellow mortals did not. Thinking spatially, about just how different configurations of different types of monument were created in different settings is a useful way of exploring the overlapping meaning between these different types of statue.

To create a database that would allow me to do that it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be very useful to work with the standard categories like “honorific portrait”, “votive portrait”, “Imperial portait”. However, it was equally clear that in finding new ways to classify monuments there was a danger of simply creating the pattern that I was expecting to be. And of course, a further problem, is that I want the database to be useful to other people which it wouldn’t be if I strayed too far from conventional classifications.

I think that the categories I’ve come up with are suitably broad to allow monuments that might have had something in common to end up in the same category, while still allowing others to distinguish between the types well-known to modern scholarship. Statues of emperors, honorific monuments to politicians and portraits of family members set up as dedications to gods can all be found under portrait statues but, where we have that information I’ve also included fields to show who they were set up by and who they were set up for. Statues of gods, personifications and heroes are separate categories, as are votive offerings (of non-human subjects), public graves and paintings.

In entering the data I’ve come across quite a few problem cases which it was hard to know how to categorise. Should a statue of a real man, set up to honour him for political service to his city, but which names him as a “hero” on the base be put in the same category as a statue of a mythical hero like Theseus? To which category do statues of Herakles, the hero who became a god, belong? And, if it’s straightforward to categorise statues of “The Demos” (the People) as personifications to distinguish them from “real” gods and goddesses like Zeus, Athena and Aphrodite, what about statues of Eirene (Peace), Ploutos (Wealth) and Hygeia (Health)? In many cases I’ve had to make snap judgements that simply cannot be completely satisfactory but which I hope makes enough sense to allow me to use the catalogue to investigate the kind of issues I’m interested in, while still allowing others to find the kinds of information they might want to draw from the database.

Making the database has been an education and I suppose the main lesson I’ve drawn is this: databases are useful for investigating the past because they let you order reality and put it into neat little boxes but you need to think hard about the shape and size of those boxes, especially when it is the messiness of historical reality itself that you are trying to examine.


Postscript: as I stressed at the beginning the database is a work in progress so I’d be glad of any feedback on either how I’ve set it up or on the individual entries. Please do leave comments here or use the feedback form on the website.

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.



A “Romantic” Encounter in Hamburg

Since yesterday I’ve been in Hamburg. I was invited to give a talk last night about my research at the Archäologisches Institut. Even though I rather predictably stayed up quite a bit later than I’d planned, enjoying dinner and German beer with the staff and students of the institute, I got up early this morning and have been trying to cram as much into my short stay as possible. I’ve never been to Hamburg before and didn’t know what to expect but I’ve had a very interesting day and one surprisingly filled with Greeks and Romans.

This morning I had the pleasure of being shown around the antiquities section of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe by the curator. I must confess I didn’t know much about the museum before but they have a very impressive array of Greek, Roman and Etruscan pieces, well lit and displayed in an inventive and thought-provoking way. I’d definitely recommend visiting if you happen to be in Hamburg. I’m only sorry that I couldn’t take any photos. I decided to travel light with only hand luggage which meant no room for the camera. It’s one of the few times that I’ve found myself wish I’d joined the 21st century and got myself a smartphone instead of my old trusty basic-as-they-come Samsung.

This afternoon, after rushing around the streets trying to see as much of the city as possible I decided to go to the Kunsthalle,  thinking it would be nice to get lost in the paintings without thinking about ancient history for a couple of hours. I didn’t expect to find myself walking around a fascinating exhibition of work by an early 19th century artist, full of paintings to do with Greek and Roman antiquity.

I’d never heard of Franz Ludwig Catel (1778-1856) before and was rather wondering if I should have. Now that I’m back at the hotel I’ve discovered there isn’t much about him on the internet either (not much more than  a  Wikipedia page and the pages about the exhibition) so I now feel a bit better about my ignorance and suspect that he probably really isn’t that well known, at least not outside of Germany. He is, however, an artist that anyone with an interest in Greek or Roman antiquity should know. A large proportion his work consists of scenes set in Italy and Greece with ancient monuments and buildings in the background.

Catel spent a lot of time in Italy and was an associate of people like Goethe and Schiller. Although he lived into the mid 19th century he seems to have been at his most prolific in the 1810s and 20s, the period of Byron and Shelley. His paintings are very much in tune with the Romantic spirit and are filled with themes such as the wildness of nature (there were some evocative depictions of Vitruvius smouldering above the bay of Naples and even a couple of views into the crater itself) and glorifications of the simplicity of the peasant way of life (There were plenty of  Italian peasants in traditional costume and riding donkeys – in one a woman was even managing to breastfeed a baby while riding a donkey!). There were also a couple of imaginings of episodes from ancient history including Pompey visiting Cicero at his villa, the two men sitting at a table on a terrace, attended by slaves, with a magnificent seaside vista in the background.

But the paintings that really intrigued me were the ones of Greek and Roman antiquities. Most of them were of monuments in Italy including  views of the archaic temples at Agrigento in Sicily and some showing tomb monuments along the Appian Way. The paintings are so interesting because this was the formative period in the history of the discipline of Classical archaeology, when antiquarian scholars were, for the first time, becoming interested in studying these monuments and thinking about what they might teach us about the ancient world. So, the paintings don’t just capture the monuments, they also capture the enchanting power that antiquity had in early 19th century culture.

There were also a couple of paintings that showed monuments in Athens. Their subject was the Greek War of Independence, which was raging as the artworks were being made. In keeping with the Byronic mood of the time, they depict the heroic battles of the Greeks against the oppressive Turks. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that these fights were set in and among the monuments of ancient Athens because it was, after all, the growing interest in ancient Greece that lay at the heart of the identification with the cause among the northwest Europeans. What I did find surprising, however, is that Catel had apparently never actually been to Greece even though the monuments were depicted extremely accurately. Of course he must have based the works on paintings or drawings he’d seen by somebody else but by who might that have been? The information boards frustratingly didn’t say.

The fighting in one scene was taking place in the Pnyx (the meeting place of the Classical Athenian assembly) and the point of view was nearly exactly the same as a rather fanciful reconstruction of Perikles’ famous funeral oration by fellow German Philipp Foltz that is very well known and which I suspect many lecturers dealing with Classical Athens have – as I have – shown to students when discussing the speech.

“Pericles’ Funeral Oration” by Philip Foltz (1852)

But Foltz painted his scene several decades after the one by Catel so that can’t have been what Catel worked from. In any case Catel’s painting includes the so-called Frankish Tower built at the entrance to the Acropolis sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries, which isn’t on Foltz’s for obvious reasons. (In case you’re wondering, the tower was controversially demolished in the late 19th century to restore the Acropolis to something closer to its Classical appearance). I wonder if there might have been a view of the Acropolis from the Pnyx in Stuart and Revett’s “The Antiquities of Athens”, published in 1762 but I won’t be able to check that until I’m back in Oxford.

Photograph of the Athenian Acropolis c.1860 with the “Frankish Tower” still there

Again I wish I had pictures to show of Catel’s own paintings but again I don’t – this time not only because I didn’t have my camera but, of course, because I wouldn’t have been allowed to take photos in the exhibition anyway. There is a book about Catel and the exhibition on sale in the museum shop but it’s a hefty tome and I was doubting whether I’d be able to get it back with me. Having, now discovered that there are very few of his paintings online and that the handful on the museum website don’t include any of those to do with the ancient world I think I’m going to have to go back tomorrow to get it – after making my Beatles pilgrimage to the Reeperbahn. The Catel exhibition almost makes up for finding out that the Beatlemania museum here sadly closed down due to lack of interest just three years after it opened

The Catel exhibition is going to be on until 31st January so if you do find yourself in Hamburg before then it is definitely worth taking a look. I’d also be glad to hear if anyone knows anything more about Catel or has suggestions as to where he might have found his inspiration for that picture of the Pnyx and Acropolis.

Exhibiting beauty – defining expectations

Last Wednesday I finally went to the Defining Beauty exhibition in the British Museum. The show has deservedly received a lot of attention in the press and with the exhibition due to close on 5th July (it seems almost as though the gods that have been gathered there knew what a momentous date in Greek history that would be) I know there isn’t really any need for a new one so I hope that you’ll indulge my sharing a few impressions here. Seeing so many of the most famous of Greek sculptures together in one place – some of which I only knew from photos – beautifully lit and without too many people bustling around to spoil it was almost as magical as I’d been hoping it would be. I came away with my head spinning with ancient sculpture and painted pottery and if it’s only now that I’ve got around to posting something about it it’s because I needed to let the impressions settle before I worked out what I really thought of it all.

The exhibition was well laid out with plenty of interesting and thought provoking juxtaposing of pieces and the calibre of artworks on display meant it could hardly be anything other than a visual treat. Some of the things I enjoyed seeing most were the bronze Apoxyomenos (athlete scraping off dust and oil), recently fished out of the sea near Croatia, a miniature bronze Zeus and a modern attempt to recreate a gold Athena by Pheidias (the 5th C Athenian artist responsible for the Parthenon sculpture), known only from literary sources.

The Croatian Apoxyomenos (as normally displayed in Zagreb)
The Croatian Apoxyomenos (as normally displayed in Zagreb)

I did have a few minor reservations about how certain pieces were arranged. Firstly it did seem something of a missed chance putting the statue of the Roman matron in the guise of Venus in a room before a Venus of exactly the type on which it was based. Even if the label did explain how the matron statue was a copy of a well-known prototype in idealising Classical style with an incongruously realistic looking portrait head, exactly what was going on there would have made much more sense if the actual Venus had come first.


It also did feel rather as though the final room, with the theme “the shock of the new” (or something like that) had been arranged as a bit of an afterthought. I’m sure that can’t have been the case because that’s where two of the exhibition’s highlights were placed – the Dionysus from the east pediment of the Parthenon (moved like a lot of the exhibits from elsewhere in the BM) and the famous Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican. But somehow the way the room was arranged didn’t seem to grab the attention in the way that the other rooms had and the theme – just how surprising genuinely Classical art was when it was first rediscovered in the Renaissance and then, in the case of the Parthenon marbles in the 19th C – just didn’t make the impact it could have. A sketch by Michelangelo, made in preparation for painting the Sistine Chapel, and clearly showing the interest of the Belevedere Torso, was tucked away and it seemed that most visitors were ignoring it as the made a beeline for the gift shop.

Perhaps the thing the exhibition made me reflect on most is the way that exhibitions themselves work – about the extent to which the way that statues and artworks are displayed can shape our expectations of them. From the moment you enter an exhibition called “Defining Beauty” you are primed to think about the objects you are viewing in terms of their visual allure and as you move around the rooms you are provoked by information boards, and confronted by way objects are shown side by side to think about them in these terms. You find yourself asking questions – as you are, of course supposed to – about the way that the Greeks used art to reflect on human beauty, about what types of bodies and faces the Greeks found beautiful and not so beautiful, and about whether the art itself is beautiful, and if it is, just why it is. Now, I’m absolutely not saying there is anything wrong with any of this – creating meaningful connections that make us think is exactly what exhibitions should do and this one does it well. I’m also sure that the Greeks did use art to reflect on the question of beauty, and that looking at their art is a legitimate way of trying to understand exactly how they did see such things. At the same time, though, I find it interesting to think about how the very same statues and artworks in a different setting might provoke a very different response. After leaving the exhibition I found the perfect opportunity to do just that.

I wanted to visit the Hellenistic galleries of the museum but frustratingly they were closed and wouldn’t be open until 3 o’clock. They had also been closed last time I was there – some of the few galleries that seemed not to be open which I suppose says a lot about what visitors are interested in or are thought to be. Anyway, I decided to wait this time because I really wanted to see some of the Hellenistic sculpture and, finding myself with some time to spare, I wandered rather aimlessly into a series of rooms displaying objects to do with the enlightenment. The walls were lined with book cases of rare manuscripts, the large halls filled with glass cabinets that looked like they were themselves genuine survivals of the 18th century in which all manner of scientific curiosities – rare minerals, animal specimens, scientific instruments – could be seen. It really all was incredibly fascinating. Dotted about the place were sculpted busts of eminent enlightenment scientists like Joseph Banks. And spaced fairly evenly around the sides was a rather interesting collection of ancient statues, mostly Roman, some copies of earlier Greek works of art, just like many of the statues in the Defining Beauty exhibition.

Ancient statues and book cases in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum
Ancient statues and book cases in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

Admittedly most of these statues weren’t quite of the same artistic standard as those in the exhibition but they were still pretty impressive. One of them – a marble cupid stringing his bow, well-known from a series of Roman copes – was actually a counterpart of a very similar piece that was in the exhibition. There was also a bust of Hercules, found apparently somewhere near Vesuvius in the 18th century, that looked quite a bit like one from Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli that was also to be seen in Defining Beauty.

Bust of Hercules, found near Vesuvius and presented to the British Museum in 1776 by William Hamilton
Bust of Hercules, found near Vesuvius and presented to the British Museum in 1776 by William Hamilton
Statue of Cupid in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum
Statue of Cupid in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

If this collection of 2,000 year old sculpture had been brought together in a different setting, perhaps in a different museum where it was up against less competition then I’m sure it could command the serious attention of visitors. Here, however, these statues simply served as a backdrop to the story of the enlightenment, helping to conjure up a suitable ambience of amateur gentlemanly scholarship and pioneering discovery. I was pretty much alone among the visitors in giving the statue more than a cursory glance. I was reminded of visiting the Uffizi where people tend to ignore the rather splendid collection of ancient statuary – all except for the Medici Venus, which has its own room and is meant to be marvelled at – and focus on the Renaissance paintings.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from any of this I suppose that it’s about the way in which the setting in which artworks are displayed and our expectations in viewing them have a profound influence over the way we experience them. People really did see Greek statues differently in Renaissance Italy than they did in Enlightenment England; both cultures saw them differently than we do and we see them differently whether we’re looking at them in in a display about the 18th Century or a thematic exhibition. Thinking away our preconceptions is the big challenge in really trying to get at how the ancient Greeks might have seen their statues.

I believe that imagining them not in a museum but rather in bustling public places surrounded by the buzz of daily life is a start. If you’ve been to the Defining Beauty exhibition then try just for a moment what impact the exhibition would have it was transported piece for piece and set up amid the chaos at Terminal One, Heathrow Airport, Kings Cross Station or in your local Sainsbury’s. I’m not saying that’s exactly what it was like to see these statues in their original context – without the distractions of smartphones people might actually have noticed them for one thing – but in many ways I believe that’s quite a bit closer to the way the ancients would have encountered them than the rarefied modern museum experience. While bringing us physically so close to ancient statues and other artworks there’s a certain irony that museum exhibitions – even fantastic ones like Defining Beauty – can take us so far away from the way these works were originally experienced.