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.

Blood on the orchestra floor – gladiator games in Roman Greece

Last week somebody sent a question to my blog: “Why are there no amphitheatres in Greece?” I’ve somehow managed to lose the question but in the hope that whoever asked it is reading – and because I find this an interesting subject – here’s an answer.

At the outset a disclaimer: there’s actually a very good article on this very subject by Katherine Welch*, Professor of Fine Arts at New York University and author of a book about Roman amphitheatres so much of what I’m going to say here is based on her work.

Leaving aside the thorny problem of “Romanisation” familiar to any student of ancient history, it pretty straightforward to see how the culture of northwest Europe was transformed when the area became part of the Roman Empire: an iron age tribal culture was transformed into one in which people lived in cities, used Roman coins to buy Roman goods and went to the baths. It’s always been more difficult to see what exactly changed when the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Mediterranean was conquered by Rome.

After all, the people had lived in cities for hundreds of years, worshipped (more or less) the same gods as the Romans and enjoyed a loosely similar form of political organisation and agrarian economy. Roman culture had of course itself been deeply transformed through contact with the Greek world – Rome had been “Hellenized”. So what did change in the Greek world? There are a few markers that scholars have tended to point to as evidence for a more Roman way of life: worship of the emperor (the Imperial Cult), Roman-style bathhouses and watching the bloody entertainments that have become synonymous with Rome in the modern imagination – gladiatorial games.

And there is, perhaps surprisingly, evidence enough that the Greeks did watch gladiator fights – inscriptions, grave stones and even – at Ephesos in Turkey – what is believed to have been a cemetery full of gladiator skeletons. The person who asked me the question was right, however, there is almost no evidence for the type of building that the Romans used for these fights in other parts of the Empire – the amphitheatre.

The Theatre of Dionysos at Athens - showing the Roman period barrier
The Theatre of Dionysos at Athens – showing the Roman period barrier

Instead the Greeks tended to convert existing structures for that purpose. In Athens a barrier was erected in the orchestra of the Theatre of Dionysus to transform that building into an arena for Roman-style blood sports. I remember pointing the barrier out to a group of students when I was teaching the Roman part of the British School at Athens summer course and a friend of mine, responsible for teaching the Bronze Age component remarked that they must have been very short gladiators – the barrier is, it’s true, only waist high. But I don’t think the idea was to stop the gladiators from running away. We shouldn’t imagine that all gladiators were like Spartacus waiting to rise up and fight for their freedom. It was probably quite rare for gladiators to fight to the death – for one thing that would have been too expensive for their owners – so for slaves of a certain violent disposition being a gladiator was probably not too bad a life. No, I think that the idea of the barrier was more to make sure that no gladiators fell with their swords or tridetnts on the rich, important people who would have been seated in the good seats at the front.

It’s hard to be sure exactly when the barrier was added but we know the theatre was modified by a local elite sycophant at the time of Nero so it seems a reasonable guess that it was around then. That, at least is what Welch and others assume. We can be sure that the barrier was for this purpose and that the theatre was indeed being used for gladiator fights because a Greek author, Dio Chrysostom (the Golden Mouthed – named for his oratorical skills), expresses his disgust at the fact it in the late first century AD – he found it a travesty that this building where great works of tragedy and comedy had been performed and where the Athenian assembly had met to vote, a sanctuary of the god Dionysos – was now being used for this unseemly purpose.

The complaint is repeated in the 2nd century by Lucian and in the early 3rd century biography of a legendary contemporary of Dio Chrysostom, the miracle-working sage, Apollonius of Tyana, written by Philostratos. We shouldn’t imagine, however, that this distaste for gladiator fights was necessarily an anti-Roman sentiment. Some members of the Latin-speaking western elite are also known to have been critical of the games. Enough people in the Greek world must have enjoyed Gladiator fights or else there would have been nothing to complain about so their dislike was probably inspired part by genuine human compassion, part snobbery towards a popular form of lower class entertainment.

The theatre of Delphi with a piece of the barrier preserved to the left of the tourists
The theatre of Delphi with a piece of the barrier preserved to the left of the tourists

Other theatres in Greece were also fitted with barriers so as to accommodate gladiator fights. I know there’s also a barrier in Delphi and I’m sure I’ve seen one at some other theatre in Greece but I can’t remember where now (if anyone knows of any please let me know). I know that at Ephesos they assume gladiator fights were held in the theatre. There instead of having a barrier the cavea (seating area) was raised up above the orchestra. The main reason Greek cities didn’t build amphitheatres is therefore probably that it was simply more cost-effective to convert existing buildings.

The stadium at Messene converted into an arena with addition of late antique wall
The stadium at Messene converted into an arena with addition of late antique wall
The stadium of Aphrodisias - similarly converted into an amphitheatre
The stadium of Aphrodisias – similarly converted into an amphitheatre

In a much later period at other cities it was the stadium, the arena for athletic competitions, that was converted to serve as an amphitheatre. At both Messene, in the southern Peloponnese and Aphrodisias, hundreds of miles away in western Turkey, probably in the 4th century AD, a makeshift curved wall was inserted into the running track to close off one end of the stadium to accommodate gladiatorial fights. At Aphrodisias small rooms were even added around the base of the seating area that were presumably used as cages from which to release animals for beast fights.

I said that there is almost no evidence for amphitheatres in the Greek world but – to come clean – there are actually a few cities that did have them, though not imposing stone buildings like the famous Colosseum. These tended to be cities where there was a particularly strong Roman influence – Gortyn and Knossos on Crete, the first the Roman provincial capital, the second an Augustan colony and, in Greece itself, Corinth, an old Greek city but one also re-founded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar. There isn’t all that much to see of the amphitheatre today and even in antiquity it was an earth-bank structure. Dio says that in his day the Corinthians watched gladiator fights in a ravine outside the city. In keeping with his negative attitude to this form of entertainment this might have been his sneering way of referring to the amphitheatre.

Finally, it is possible that at some cities gladiator fights might have been held in the agora. We know that in Roman culture gladiator fights were originally held on the Forum and at early Roman colonies in Italy post-holes have been found that may have been for grandstands for such spectacles. Writing in the age of Augustus the architect Vitruvius recommends that Roman fora should be rectangular, unlike Greek agoras that tended to be more square, because that shape was more suitable for spectators watching gladiator fights. For what it’s worth the Forum of Corinth follows his recommendation so maybe – although I’ve never heard of anyone else making the suggestion – that’s where the fights took place before the amphitheatre was built.

Artistic reconstruction of gladiator fights on the agora of Hierapolis
Artistic reconstruction of gladiator fights on the agora of Hierapolis

At Hierapolis in Asia Minor the excavators have also speculated that gladiator fights took place in the agora. An imposing stoa-basilica that lined one side of the square was decorated with reliefs depicting gladiatorial scenes. The outside colonnade of the building facing the square would have made a suitable grandstand and the unusual propylon (monumental entrance) at the centre of the colonnade might, at times of spectacles, have been where important local dignitaries would have sat. The capitals of the columns of the entrance are unusually decorated with sculpted lions attacking bulls which might have been intended to evoke the beast-fights that along with gladiatorial combats were a popular form of Roman entertainment, the two often being staged together. At the very least the presence of gladiator reliefs in this Greek speaking town in distant, land-locked Phrygia, attest to how deeply this Roman “sport” had become embedded in Greek culture. With the Roman conquest things certainly had changed.

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.

Roman Corinth

I’m on the home run of my Peloponnesian tour having got up early to drive from the southern most region, Messenia back to Corinth in the top right hand corner of the peninsula, near the so called Isthmus . In antiquity the Isthmus was a narrow strip of land where the Adriatic and Aegean seas very nearly met. Since the late 19th century construction of the Corinth canal ships can actually pass from one sea to the other here which I suppose, technically, should make the Peloponnese a proper island, connected to the rest of Greece by a bridge. This key intersection of both seas and land masses was a perfect site for a city to thrive, as Corinth  did in Archaic and Classical times, earning itself the sobriquet “Wealthy Corinth”. Visitors to the site today, however, see few remains of this period and are confronted almost entirely by ruins of the Roman period.

In 146 BC the city of Corinth was sacked by the Roman general Mummius. It is still a matter of discussion among scholars what happened to the Greek inhabitants – it was very interesting to hear the views of Guy Sanders, director of the ongoing excavations at the site on that very subject today. It is certain, however, that the city was re-founded by the Romans, under Julius Caesar as a colony which led to a complete rebuilding of the main civic centre from the period from the 1st century BC to the late 2nd century AD. The Romanness of this city can be seen in features such as the podium-style temples erected along the west of the Forum, in the fact that this was the only city in Greece to have an amphitheatre for gladiatorial games (other Greek cities held them in their theatres) and in the fact that the language of administration, as seen on inscriptions at the site, was, up to the time of Hadrian, Latin not Greek.

Corinth - the Archaic Temple with Acrocorinth in the background
Corinth – the Archaic Temple with Acrocorinth in the background

I’ve been to the site quite often and studied it for my PhD thesis so I think I understand it quite well but I’m sure it looks more than a bit bewildering to most visitors today. The colonists had created their forum – essentially the area accessible to visitors – be creating a series of level terraces in what had previously been a shallow valley. However, it’s very hard to discern these terraces today because when the site was excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries the archaeologists dug down to different levels in different places creating a very uneven appearance. To compound the problem blocks from various buildings and monuments are piled up around the site. There are also few information boards and as yet no adequate guidebook. I know that someone was working on a one, which I am also sure will be very good, but I have no idea when it will be ready.

Architectural fragments piled up at the site of Corinth
Architectural fragments piled up at the site of Corinth

One of the things that attracts visitors to Corinth is the city’s association with St. Paul who, of course wrote letters to the Christian community here and was hauled before the Roman governor when he fell out with the local Jewish population. At the centre of the forum is a bema, a speaker’s platform, which has recently been in part restored and which is where Paul may have faced the governor. That interpretation has been challenged recently by a scholar who thinks his interrogation was in one of the Forum’s three basilicas, but I like the idea and I’ve argued in my PhD thesis that the use of the bema on such an occasion was actually quite likely from what we know of the use of such platforms elsewhere.

Highlights of the site include the old Archaic Temple (probably to Apollo), which was one of the few pre-Roman buildings to be incorporated into the new city and the Peirene fountain, sadly inaccessible to tourists but you can get a good view of it from the hill of the temple. This was the spot where the hero Bellerophon was believed to have tamed the winged horse Pegasus, and it gets a mention in Euripides’ Medea, a play set at Corinth as a place where old men sat around playing dice. There was indeed a fountain at the spot already in Archaic times connected to an incredible labyrinthine network of tunnels, several kilometres long tapping the water of an underground natural spring. You can still hear the water gushing into the fountain’s reservoirs today. The fountain was in use throughout the Greek and Roman periods of the site and over the centuries became increasingly monumentalised, becoming fronted by an architectural façade and surrounded by a courtyard. There’s an excellent, and fairly recent, monograph exploring the various phases of the building by Betsey Robinson.

The Peirene Fountain at Corinth - note the openings in the facade
The Peirene Fountain at Corinth – note the openings in the facade

As I said, I’ve been to the site many times and today, although I had a stroll around it today I spent my time mainly in the museum studying the wonderful collection of sculpture. I’d of course been there before as well but I’d forgotten quite how many treasures are on display there. Here too most of the material dates from the Roman period. There are plenty of statues of Roman emperors, including a particularly well-known over-life-size group of Augustus and his two grandsons, Lucius and Gaius. Singled out by Augustus to be his successors, both died too young to bring his dynastic ambitions to fruition. At the opposite end of the gallery there are the colossal eastern barbarians that were part of an architectural façade that was erected across the front of one of the forum’s basilicas, the so-called Captive’s Façade. There are also plenty of heads and torsos of various other statues of gods and emperors and, in the museum’s courtyard and surrounding walkway as well as a whole group of headless togate statues that had presumably been erected to civic benefactors.

Headless togate statues in the courtyard of the Corinth museum
Headless togate statues in the courtyard of the Corinth museum

I had a good look at all of this material, taking plenty of photos of details that caught my eye and. All of these statues have been studied and published but because the Corinth excavations took place so long ago, a lot of this scholarship is open to reinterpretation in the light of advances in our knowledge. In fact there’s quite a bit of work being done at Corinth by archaeologists going through the old excavation notebooks and making use of improved understandings of the chronology of pottery – the fragments of which are so important for dating archaeological layers – to challenge old interpretations and arrive at new ones. Having studied the statues and pieces of sculpture firsthand I now need to go away and (re)read what has been written about where they were found, how they were dated, and what previous scholars have said about the details that caught my eye in order to think about the impact they might have made on ancient viewers in public space.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading back to Athens to spend a week in the libraries some of the museums there. On the way back, however, I’m planning to visit two more sites – Perachora and Isthmia. The first is an Archaic and Classical sanctuary, not particularly relevant to my research but one of those sites that every Greek archaeologists really should have seen and which I, to my shame, have never got around to visiting. The second is Isthmia, the major sanctuary of Poseidon and venue of the Isthmian games, one of the four big Panhellenic Games, alongside Olympia, Delphi and Nemea. I have been there before but the museum was closed for refurbishment. Now it should be open – fingers crossed – and there should be some interesting Roman period monuments among the treasures there.

As a closing note I have to say that I did a pretty good job of not getting lost today. The only time I strayed off the beaten track a bit was when I left the ancient site of Corinth and tried to head for the modern town. I could see the town in the distance near the sea and thought if I picked a road heading towards it I’d be fine. I soon found myself on a gravel road skirting the highway, which I really need to cross somehow and then suddenly the road turned off to the left, away from modern Corinth and back into farmland at the foot of Acrocorinth. Out of the corner of my eye up ahead I thought I saw something that looked like a scarecrow but then I recognised it as a strung up teddy bear. There were actually a few of them but I only had the nerve to stop and take a photo of one. When you find yourself in a place where they’ve been lynching teddy bears you know you’ve got to get out and I did – fast!

A lynched teddy bear
A lynched teddy bear

The ruins of Argos – report of a visit

Today was the first day of my big Peloponnesian adventure. My main goal is to spend a couple of days at both Messene and Corinth, two sites that I’m focussing on in my research as case-studies because a real wealth of Roman period material has been found at both sites. But I’ve decided to fit in a few other sites as well – mostly places I’ve never been to. Today, however, I began the trip by going to Argos, a place that I have visited several times already, because I wanted to spend a bit more time looking round the Roman bathhouse than I had before and to visit the museum because I couldn’t quite remember what Roman period stuff they’ve got on display there. The visit didn’t quite work out as planned.

After I’d managed to negotiate my way out of Athens’ frustrating one-way system I made good progress but then I stupidly took a wrong turn just before Corinth which ended up costing me a good hour’s travelling time. Stupid to think I’d really memorised the directions I’d looked up yesterday on the internet. I’ve now bought a very good map of the Peloponnese which I should have done before setting out! When I finally got to Argos I managed to got lost in that town’s one way system – I blame the poor signposting to the site – but I finally found the bathhouse, theatre and agora at around 14:45. I thought I would have a good hour and a quarter to look around but it turned out that the information I’d found on the internet was wrong and the site shuts at 15:00 rather than 16:00. On top of that it turned out that the museum is currently closed for renovation and won’t be open for a couple of years.

I did manage to quickly run around and get a few photos of the bathhouse and theatre.

The imposing remains of the Roman period bathhouse at Argos
The imposing remains of the Roman period bathhouse at Argos

The agora part of the site was completely closed and looking very overgrown. I expect that they will cut it back soon after leaving it for the winter. I didn’t mind too much that I didn’t get onto the agora because the site played a big role in my PhD thesis and I’ve spent quite a bit of time there. Despite not seeing the museum and only managing to rush around the bathhouse my journey certainly wasn’t wasted because I also managed to visit a few sites in the town that I’d never seen before. The other times I’d visited Argos I went from Athens by bus and the timing of the last bus back meant I was always quite rushed.

I drove up to take a look at the medieval castle on the Larissa hill overlooking the town, the old Acropolis of the ancient city (a bit hair-raising for someone with a fear of heights!); I also saw the remains of a sanctuary of Apollo at the foot of that hill. The most impressive thing I saw, though was a monument I’d wanted to see ever since Carole (@carolmadge) of the Following Hadrian blog (well worth reading and subscribing too!) tweeted me a photo of it a few months back- the Hadrianic Nymphaeum. Nymphaea are ornate public monumental fountain houses that take their name from the Nymphs (water-sprites) and which became very popular in the Greek world in the 2nd century AD.

The one at Argos was certainly constructed at the time of Hadrian and was possibly paid for by him. Hadrian was the most Philhellenic of all Roman Emperors and well known for his benefactions to Greek cities. Hadrian certainly did pay for an aqueduct to improve the city’s water supply by bringing water 30km from the surrounding hills because an inscription was found in the city that refers to that gift. The nympheum is located a couple of hundred metres to the east of the bathhouse and unlike that site isn’t fenced off.

The Hadrianic Nymphaeum at Argos
The Hadrianic Nymphaeum at Argos

An abundant water supply was seen as a sign of prosperity and success for Roman period Greek cities, which is a big part of why Nympahea became so popular in imperial times. Cities, of course, also needed lots of water for bathing in their new grand Roman-style bathhouses, of which the one at Argos, has some of the most impressive remains in Greece. The Romans, of course, were also experts at the technology required to bring water over great distances to supply cities which made such luxurious uses of water possible. It is, however, also worth recognising that there’s an important political dimension to this.

In the days before the Roman conquest there wouldn’t have been much point in Greek poleis trying to bring in vast quantities of water from far away because these city-states were constantly warring among themselves. In times of conflict, citizens retreated behind their city walls for safety. If they’d been reliant on miles of aqueducts for their water supply these structures would have been natural targets for enemies to demolish or damage. So, if one answer to the question “What did the Romans ever do for the Greeks?” is “Gave them aqueducts”, it’s also important to recognise that Roman conquest brought the political stability needed to make investment in aqueducts worthwhile. Whether that stability came at the cost of oppression is a tricky subject and one I’ll come back to in a future blog, as promised yesterday.

The Nymphaeum at Argos must have been a very grand affair. The thing that impressed me most about the ruins was the way in which you could see how the lower part of the momument had been carved out of the hillside with steps cut away on which the upper, brick part of the building rested. The whole thing would no doubt have been covered in marble revetment, thin sheets of marble veneer, a cost-effective technique that the Romans developed to make their public buildings look suitably grand without having to make them of solid marble blocks. A large niche in the centre of the rear of the building would probably have held a statue, perhaps of the emperor Hadrian if he was indeed the building’s benefactor.

The Roman Nymphaeum at Argos (detail showing brickwork resting on rock cut construction)
The Roman Nymphaeum at Argos (detail showing brickwork resting on rock cut construction)

I did find myself wondering where the building might have stood in relation to the rest of ancient Argos. A helpful 3D reconstruction is displayed for tourists nearby with the locations of all of the structures that have been excavated in the city, including the nymphaeum and with the locations of some of those known to have existed from inscriptions or literary sources guessed at.

Reconstruction drawing of ancient Argos c. 160 AD
Reconstruction drawing of ancient Argos c. 160 AD

The drawing gives a vivid impression of what a town like Argos must have been like in the Roman period but the truth is that there are a lot of holes in our knowledge of the topography of the city. In fact, more than any of the ancient city sites I know in Greece it has been difficult at Argos to match the buildings that have been excavated to the ancient literary sources, and in particular to Pausanias’ mid 2nd century AD description of the site. What this means is that we don’t really know exactly what a lot of the excavated structures were and that a lot of the structures mentioned in the sources still haven’t been found.

The problem arises because, as at so many other Greek sites a modern town has been built on top of the ancient one so that excavation has only been possible at certain spots within the city. The photo I took from the Nymphaion overlooking modern Argos provides a sharp contrast with the reconstruction drawing showing a view in the same direction but from slightly further away. It gives a good idea of just how much of the ancient city may still lie buried beneath modern buildings.

The view of modern Argos from the Nymphaeum
The view of modern Argos from the Nymphaeum

In a few days time I’ll be visiting Messene which is a rare example in Greece of an ancient city that hasn’t had a modern town built on top of it – there is a modern Messene but for some reason it’s 20km further south. At ancient Messene the archaeologists have unearthed some of the most impressive remains of public buildings and monuments anywhere in Greece and it’s much easier to get a sense of the scale of the ancient site and see how the city fits together. I can’t wait to get back there and see some of the exciting finds that have been made in the last few years.

Now, after a day on the road I feel that I’ve earned a relaxing evening and am about to head out for a meal by the seaside. I’m staying in an extremely touristic place called Tolo where every other building seems to be a hotel and where you can get English breakfasts and the Germans can enjoy “Zimmer am meer” (rooms with a sea view – I didn’t follow that course for nothing!). Tomorrow I’m head off to Kalamata in Messenia so that I can get to Messene on Monday. First, tomorrow I’m going to see a few sites in Arcadia, the central part of the Peloponnese including Lykosoura, a rural sanctuary where some of the only actual cult statues in Greece were discovered in the late 19th Century and the museum in Tripoli. I hope it isn’t closed for restoration works.

On ancient cities as museums

One of the few work-related advantages of living in a small village nine miles away from Oxford is that the forty-minute bus trip each morning and evening gives me a lot of time for reading. I know that a few weeks ago I was moaning about the sheer amount of scholarship researchers in the humanities are now forced to grapple with but I wouldn’t be doing the work I do if I didn’t greatly enjoy reading about ancient history and archaeology. After spending the last few years teaching and having my reading load largely determined by what I was required to cover in lectures and seminars it’s great to have the freedom to get stuck into some good books on topics more closely connected to my research interests.

This week I’ve been engrossed in the recent publication by Steven Rutledge, “Ancient Rome as a Museum”. In the book Rutledge uses theories from modern museum studies to explore what the vast array of what he calls “cultural property” on display in ancient Rome – paintings, statues, ancient weapons, tapestries, silverware etc. – can tell us about Roman identity and structures of power within the city. A recurrent issue in the work is the way that the meaning of such artefacts was heavily dependent on setting – where they could be seen and how they were grouped together – which is a central concern of my own research into the public monuments of Roman Greece. Indeed much of Rutledge’s “cultural property” falls into the category of what I would call monuments.

Of course Rome was a very different place than the Greek poleis I’m dealing with. By the late Republic/early Empire – the period covered by my research and the period when most of Rutledge’s evidence clusters – Rome was the capital of an Empire spanning three continents and a city with probably close to a million inhabitants. While most of what we nowadays tend to call cities in ancient Greece were home to no more than a few thousand or tens of thousands of people, Rome came close to fitting our modern expectations of what a city should be like, at least in terms of scale.

In terms of the sheer amount of statuary and cultural bric-a-brac on display in its public spaces and buildings, however, Rome, like the cities of Greece would have looked rather odd to a modern viewer. A few days ago I read, in a different book, an estimate that by the 3rd Century AD there may have been as many as 500,000 statues in Rome, which would be one for every three of the million and a half inhabitants! Throughout its long history Rome had accumulated a fascinatingly diverse array of monuments and public artworks. Some had originally been erected in Rome itself but, by the time of the emperors, the vast majority of cultural treasure to be seen was comprised of artefacts taken from elsewhere, and in particular from the Greek world, whether captured as war booty or acquired through trade from conquered peoples.

From the late 3rd to the late 1st century BC as the Romans worked their way clockwise around the Mediterranean absorbing the old Hellenistic kingdoms into their expanding Empire they brought increasing amounts of Greek statuary and other artwork back to adorn the city of Rome. By the time of the first emperor, Augustus, Rome could boast sculpture and paintings by some of the most famous artists of Greece’s glorious Classical past including Pheidias (he made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, reckoned among the so-called Seven Wonders of the World), Praxiteles (famous for being the first artist to sculpt Aphrodite in the nude) and Zeuxis (a painter whose painted grapes were so realistic that birds flew down to eat them). None of the works by these great masters that adorned the city have survived but we are informed about them in literary sources such as Pliny’s Natural History, a book written in the mid 1st century AD, which has a strong claim to be the world’s first, or at least the earliest surviving, encyclopaedia.

One of the more wondrous monuments to have been lost to us, in my opinion, was a set of twenty-five statues of warriors on horseback commissioned by Alexander the Great to commemorate his comrades who had fallen at the Battle of Granicus by his favourite sculptor Lysippos. The group had originally stood in the religious sanctuary of Dion in Macedonia (incidentally a site with extremely impressive Roman period remains and well worth a visit) and was shipped back to Rome in the mid 2nd century BC by the victorious general who annexed the region as a Roman province. Possibly the weirdest monument to have stood in the city was another mounted statue, again by Lysippos, of Alexander himself, whose portrait features were remodelled to look like Julius Caesar while the front hooves of the horse were refashioned to look like human feet because that’s what Caesar’s horse was supposed to have looked like!

Ancient mounted statuette of Alexander, suggested by Rutledge as giving an impression of what the life-size statue may have looked like
Ancient mounted statuette of Alexander, suggested by Rutledge as giving an impression of what the life-size statue may have looked like

I must admit that when I first heard about Rutledge’s book I was suspicious that I wouldn’t agree with its central argument because of the word “museum” in the title and because of the way that that word has been used to describe what happened to the public spaces of Greek cities in the period of Roman rule. In researching the transformation of the Greek agora (main public square) in Hellenistic and Roman times for my PhD thesis I frequently came across scholars pronouncing that the agora at that time became more and more like a museum, by which they meant that it gradually ceased to be the vibrant public square it had been in earlier periods.

Saying that agoras became like museums implied a number of things and none of them good: firstly agoras had become so cluttered with statues and other monuments that there was little room for the exciting types of human interactions that had taken place there in the Classical period; furthermore, a lot of these monuments were in honour of local oligarchs or Roman Empires and therefore symbolised the decline of democracy and a reduced role in political life for the ordinary citizen; finally, the interest bestowed upon older monuments was a symptom of a backward looking culture sapped of its earlier vitality.

Until very recently there was very little comparative research into the Hellenistic and Roman agora at all and such conclusions were generally tacked on to the end of discussions about the Classical agora, which was glorified as the quintessential public space, where people of different backgrounds rubbed shoulders, where politics was fervently debated, where philosophical conflicts were played out and where new ideas came into existence. To say that in later periods the agora became like a museum implied that it had very little in common with the famous Classical Athenian Agora where Socrates had harangued the citizens and democracy had been born.

My thesis, which I’m now working into book form for publication, is an argument against this interpretation. It aims to show that the agora remained a dynamic public space until well into Roman times and that it is worth looking at issues such as how people interacted on the agora, at the public discourse surrounding behaviour on the agora, at public violence and the transformation of the built environment of the space itself because to do so can deepen our understanding of the nature of polis society.

The number of monuments in public spaces might have increased under the Empire but this didn’t mean that these spaces became like museums because the display of monuments was never the primary purpose of these spaces. Except for a few tourists, people didn’t go to the agora to stroll around gazing at monuments, they went there to shop, to barter, to witness public trials, to worship the gods at temples and to talk with friends. The fact that this activity was taking place surrounded by statues that numbered in their hundreds raises fascinating questions about the impact these monuments had on day-to-day life at this time. I’ve already used the analogy in an earlier post but try imagining what it would be like if your local supermarket or leisure centre were cluttered with statues and you can begin to appreciate just how different these cities were from our own.

So, it was with this prejudice against the idea of seeing ancient cities as museums that I began Rutledge’s book. It soon became apparent, however, that his use of the word “museum” implies none of the negative connotations that I’d encountered in scholarship on the agora. The book is interested in the way in which the meaning of monuments and other cultural property were transformed and reshaped to suit the interests of the present as the balance of power within the city shifted – first as competing generals and politicians struggled with each other for influence in the declining years of the Republic and then as successive Emperors sought to stamp their authority on the city and Empire. Rutledge’s museum city is very much a living place. I would have liked to have seen perhaps a little more attention for the types of things people did in the spaces where different kinds of cultural property were displayed but that wasn’t Rutledge’s main concern and the scope of the book in terms of the evidence amassed and the range of issues discussed is already impressive enough.

Rutledge’s book is a fascinating read and, as I expected, very useful for my project, both in terms of thinking about how I’m approaching my topic, and by providing a wealth of insight into the impact of artworks on the urban experience in Rome, which will help me tackle the rather thorny problem of potential Roman influence on how the Greeks dealt with their material heritage under the Empire. In my next piece I’m going to talk about an issue that I hadn’t really given much thought before but which occurred to me while reading the book – the way in which the Romans and the Greeks seem to have developed separate and quite distinct traditions of erecting honorific portrait statues and what this meant for the practice of setting up such statues once Greece became part of the Roman Empire.

The resting places of giants

A name that’s cropped up quite a lot in this blog so far is Pausanias, a Greek from Asia Minor, who toured old Greece at the height of the Roman Empire (mid 2nd Century AD) and left us a description of what he saw. For my research project Pausanias is an invaluable source because he provides more details by far than any other ancient author  about the monuments that could be seen in the cities of Roman Greece. He is highly selective in what he talks about – his interests lie very much with things that were believed to be either very old, were of deep religious significance or both. This means he says next to nothing about the large numbers of Roman period statues that were erected in public spaces under the Empire and which are well-known from the surviving inscriptions and archaeology. Still, it’s fascinating to think about the ways that these new monuments must have jostled for space with the antiquities that Pausanias does describe. Exploring the interplay meaning between different types of monument – religious, political, ancient and new – is one of the main concerns of my project.

Pausanias’ work is an extensive description of the the Roman province of Achaea, which is roughly equivalent to southern and central modern day Greece and the heartland of Greek culture in the Classical period – the area where the great and famous poleis of Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Argos and Thebes could all be found. It’s clear from his work, however, that he had travelled widely beyond that country. He must have been in Rome because on two occasions he mentions how impressed he was with Trajan’s Forum. He was also clearly familiar with many of the Greek cities on the west coast of Asia Minor – the area he seems to have come from – and he makes occasional digressions to talk about them. One of his most fascinating digressions, and one that I’ve been reading again with some interest in writing my article on the tomb monuments of Roman Greece, concerns some extraordinarily large human skeletons he claimed to have seen.

Near the beginning of his work Pausanias describes the island city of Salamis, which lies to the west of Athens, just off the coast, near where the Greeks had their triumphant naval victory over the Persians in the early 5th Century. Salamis was the birthplace of the Ajax, one of the heroes of the Trojan War and this causes Pausanias to remember visiting Ajax’s tomb near Troy. (Ajax had killed himself near the end of the Trojan War in shame after a bout of insanity which had led him to try to kill his fellow Greek heroes – at least in the most well known version of the story preserved in Sophocles’ play). Pausanias tells us how the sea had washed away part of the tomb so that it was possible to enter it.

Myron's Discoboulos
Myron’s Discoboulos

He had been shown the remains by a local guide who had pointed to the skeleton’s kneecaps as an indication of how big it was. Pausanias tells us that the kneecaps were as big as the discus thrown by boys in the ancient Greek pentathlon. From surviving ancient discuses and representations of them Adrienne Mayor (on whom more presently) has estimated that these knee-caps must have been around 15cm wide! The picture of the famous ancient discoboulos (discus-thrower) statue gives an idea how big the discus thrown by adult men was. After a brief internet search I discovered that an average adult male kneecap nowadays is about 4.5 cm wide. So if Ajax was perfectly proportioned, as all Greek heroes of course were, he would have been more than three times as tall as an average man! At least, that is what Pausanias and his guide seemed to believe….

This excursus on Ajax’s grave leads Pausanias to tell us about several other remarkable heroic skeletons he knew of. On an island called Lade, off the west coast of Asia Minor oppposite the city of Miletos, he had seen the bones of a hero called Asterios, which were over 10 cubits, or 4.5m tall. He also discusses colossal human remains of a hero at a place called “the Doors of Temenos” in Asia Minor and those of a hero whose rib cage had fused together in a remarkable way, in another city in the same region. And Pausanias isn’t the only Roman period author to discuss such marvels. Philostratos, writing slightly later in the early 3rd Century AD discusses no less than seven tombs where giant skeletons could be seen, or parts of the Mediterranean where such remains were common, in his dialgoue “On Heroes”. Philostratos’ discussion also includes the tomb of Ajax, whose skeleton he says was 11 cubits, or neary 5m tall. He also tells us that the Emperor Hadrian – that lover of all things Greek – had visited the tomb and had paid for it to be rebuilt.

These remarkable accounts naturally give rise to the question what exactly were the Roman period Greeks seeing when they visited such remains? A theory that has been put forward by Adrienne Mayor in her book The First Fossil Hunters is that these were bones of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. Mayor doesn’t only discuss these heroic graves but also a wealth of evidence for people in ancient times interpreting fossils as monsters and mythical beasts. These ideas have also featured in Tom Holland’s BBC4 documentary Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters. I must confess that so far I’ve only browsed in Mayor’s book but I do find it an extremely attractive and persuasive idea that the heroic skeletons of Pausanias and Philostratos were really the remains of extinct creatures from millions of years ago. What really fascinates me, however, is thinking about the ways that the stories invented to explain such bones might have been created.

Details in the literary accounts hint at the way that these traditions had been shaped through human agency. The story of Ajax’s kneecap, for instance, in the way that erosion had opened up the tomb, on first consideration reminds us of the way that fossils today are still uncovered by the sea on beaches. That is how a certain online encyclopaedia accounts for the story. However Pausanias’ explicitly tells us that the remains weren’t simply lying exposed to the elements but were actually inside a tomb that it was possible to enter. And the structure he saw must have been a predecessor of Hadrian’s building because Pausanias explicitly comments on it being in a dilapidated state. If the remains had originally been uncovered by the wind or sea had they perhaps been moved by the locals to a more impressive and convincing resting place?

Furthermore, even though Pausanias focuses on the kneecap he doesn’t actually say that that was all there was to see of Ajax. If this was nothing more to the skeleton than a kneecap it’s hard to see how this was enough to convince Pausanias – or anyone –that these really were the remains of a human-looking hero. If, on the other hand, there was more preserved than simply a part of the leg – or even if there was more of the leg than just the kneecap – then it is curious how the remains of a prehistoric animal could be thought to look anything like basically human in form.

For none of the examples mentioned by Pausanias or Phiostratos do we hear that the remains were either very fragmentary or didn’t look quite human. It would have surely been more natural to think that remains of dinosaurs or prehistoric beasts belonged to one of the many monsters that appear in Greek mythology – griffins, sirens, chimeras and so on – as the Greeks, indeed do often seem to have interpreted such remains. If the bones of Ajax, Asterios and the others really were animal or dinosaur fossils I wonder if they might not have been rearranged in some way to look more human for visitors. I’m reminded of the skeletons of the two “centaurs” that have  created by combining human and horse remains and which have are on display in two different American museums. The intention here isn’t to deceive, but rather to provoke a response and challenge viewers to think about how we make sense of buried remains. The artful placement of bones in antiquity could, however, have been carried out with rather less innocent motives.

"The Centaur of Volos" at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville's John C. Hodges Library
“The Centaur of Volos” at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s John C. Hodges Library

What we really need to understand these supposedly heroic burials properly, of course, is some archaeological evidence but sadly, so far none of these graves has been discovered. Two fossilised bones have been discovered at two different Greek sanctuaries, confirming that such remains were venerated in Greek culture. Pausanias too comments on seeing individual bones of monsters or giants in sanctuaries. Archaeologists, however, have yet to discover a prehistoric fossilised skeleton interred in an ancient Greek tomb. Personally I would find the discovery of Ajax’s Hadrianic tomb, complete with fossilised prehistoric remains, one of the most exciting discoveries imaginable in Classical archaeology.

For my the purposes of my research these stories of gigantic human remains open up all sorts of interesting questions – questions about the way that the Roman period Greeks thought about and related to the distant heroic past and about how they used monuments and physical remains to make that past relevant to the present. For a start these sources make me wonder if people reading the Homeric epics in Roman times really tended to visualise the heroes of the Trojan War – Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and the rest – as enormous giants striding across the battlefield.

It is also fascinating to think about how these sources attest to a desire on the part of the Roman period Greeks to physically touch and handle what they believed to be the remains of their ancient heroes. In Greek religious thought heroes were semi-divine beings whose super human deeds brought them closer to the world of the gods. Indeed they were often believed to have at least one god as a parent. The cults of the heroes are sometimes compared to those of the later Christian saints. Was the handling of heroic bones described by Pausanias and Philostratos done in a spirit of veneration (as in the case of saintly relics) or simply out of morbid curiosity?

Closer to my own interests are questions about the ways in which possession of such remains could be used to stake a claim to prestige and status in the world of the Empire. Last time I discussed examples of cities in Greece in the Roman period making rival claims to possessing the tombs of the same hero – a clear sign that at least one of those claims had been made up. It seems fairly clear that the stories of colossal skeletons belonging to heroes must also have been invented. Again Pausanias gives us direct evidence that cities were making competing claims to possession of heroic bones.

He proudly boasts of how he had challenged his guides at the Doors of Temenos that the bones they had shown him could not possibly be those of the giant Geryon because he knew that Geryon was buried at Gadeira (modern day Cadiz in Spain). The point of the story is to demonstrate that Pausanias was far too well travelled and educated to be taken in easily. It is, therefore all the more surprising that he goes on to say that when his guides immediately changed their story and now told him that these were actually the bones of a hero called Hyllos he was all to happy to believe them! An extra layer is added to this particular story because Philostratos also mentions the gigantic remains of Hyllos, but he places them in a completely different city. It seems from these stories that local tour guides in antiquity were, like their modern counterparts, often all to ready to tell visitors the sort of stories that they wanted to hear.

Making up stories about giant skeletons wasn’t new to the Greeks of Roman times. Some of you might know the famous story told by Herodotus in which the Spartans in the mid 6th century BC, in answer to an oracle from Delphi, brought the bones of the hero Orestes back from the land of their enemy to Tegea to their own city. Herodotus, writing a century later, tells us that the skeleton was reputedly 7 cubits (3.15m) tall and buried in a coffin, a detail which suggests that these remains (if anyone had actually really seen them) must have been fairly complete.

Still, it is striking that the vast majority of such stories are found in Roman period authors. Even the other well-known story of the Athenians recovering Theseus’ colossal remains, though set in the 5th century BC is actually told by Plutarch who wrote in the 1st century AD. There is, as we saw last time, also an abundance of evidence from the Roman period for cities in Greece making competing claims to possession of heroic tombs. In Greece itself, none of these tombs is reported as containing visible human remains but it is clear enough that we are dealing with the same phenomenon. Being able to actually display a hero’s bones was an obvious way of making such claims seem more credible. If Greece had less heroic skeletons than Asia Minor, perhaps that was the result of different geological conditions and different rates of survival of fossilised remains in the two areas. I’m looking forward to learning more about such issues from reading Mayor’s book properly.

I suggest that it is not merely a coincidence of survival in the sources that we have more accounts of such remains in Roman times but that this represents an increasing interest in heroic burials at this time. The argument I’m developing in the article I am working on is that in the Greek speaking eastern half of the Mediterranean, and in Greece in particular, it became increasingly common under the Roman Empire for cities to advertise possession of  tombs of mythical and legendary heroes in order to compete for prestige and status.

Next time I’m going to be looking at how exactly the invention of heroic tomb monuments in Roman Greece might have come about. If these weren’t genuine heroic tombs then what were they? I’ll also be thinking about why cities were so clean to stake claims to heroic remains and about who stood to gain most from inventing such stories.

Hellenistic Athens comes to 18th Century Oxford

Last time I was inspired by the Radcliff Observatory, which stands near my place of work in Oxford, to talk about the Hellenistic building that served as its inspiration, the Tower of the Winds in Athens. Now I’d like to pay some closer attention to the observatory itself and to the question of what it might have meant when it was built in the 18th Century that it copied, in some of its details, this ancient monument. Reception studies, or looking at the way that later times and cultures have responded to Greek and Roman antiquity, has become a booming area of scholarship for classicists and ancient historians in recent years. I’d like to think of this blog piece as my first, cautious, engagement with this issue.

The architectural resemblance between the Tower of the Winds and the Radcliffe Observatory is actually rather slight. The Tower of the Winds is a 12m tall, octagonal tower with a single entrance and no windows. The Radcliffe Observatory is a much larger, three tiered, wedding-cake-like building. The ground floor is rectangular, the second storey loosely semi-circular, the third storey the tower itself. The tower has eight sides but it is not perfectly octagonal, having four long and four short sides. All eight faces are fitted with windows – large windows framed by neo-Classical porches on the large sides, two small windows, one above the other on the short sides.

Left: The Tower of the Winds. Right: The Radcliffe Observatory
Left: The Tower of the Winds. Right: The Radcliffe Observatory

The architectural order used for the observatory tower, Corinthian, (easy to recognise with its flowery column capitals) is the same as the Tower of the Winds but the ancient building only has two modest columns framing each of its two entrances, whereas the observatory has articulated columns and pilasters on each of the long sides of the tower. Pilasters with Ionic capitals are used to decorate the lower parts of the building. The Tower of the Winds is built of white Pentelic marble, the same stone as the Parthenon, while the observatory is built from a yellowish limestone. Both buildings are decorated around the edges of their roofs with spouts to carry off rainwater in the form of lions’ heads, which were fairly common in the ancient world. Where the observatory does copy the Tower of the Winds closely, however, as we saw last time, is in the series of relief representations of the eight directional winds that decorated each of its faces.

The decision to model the observatory on the Tower of the Winds was presumably made by the second architect to work on the building, James Wyatt (1746-1813), who took over the commission from the first architect Henry Keene when construction had already begun. (My knowledge of the construction history of the observatory is completely based on an article published by Geoffrey Tyack in an edited volume on the history of the building. It is worth noting that Tyack shows that the Wyatt did not take over the building after Keene died as Wikipedia claims but that those in charge of the building chose to change architects for some unknown reason). The artist who sculpted the winds was John Bacon (1740-1799).The observatory took nearly twenty years to complete though it went into use as soon as the ground floor was completed. It was finished in 1794 and the tower and its relief sculptures were naturally the last part to be built.

Reconstructed front elevation of the Tower of the Winds by Stuart and Revett
Reconstructed front elevation of the Tower of the Winds by Stuart and Revett

The Tower of the Winds with its reliefs had first become known in Britain just thirty years before that when James Stuart and Nicholas Revett published their truly seminal and exquisitely illustrated The Antiquities of Athens. The book has rightly earned a place as one of the founding publications of Greek archaeology and reproductions of its plates are still regularly used to illustrate textbooks and to provide insight into what the ancient remains of Athens looked like two and a half centuries ago. Often the drawings preserve details of buildings that have since disappeared, which makes them an invaluable resource for research into these monuments. Wyatt and Bacon may also have known the slightly earlier publication on the monuments of Greece by the Frenchman, Julien David le Roy although his illustrations of the Tower were rather more impressionistic than those of Stuart and Revett so that it is clear that the sculptures on the observatory were based on the latter.


The Tower of the Winds by Julien David le Roy
The Tower of the Winds by Julien David le Roy


Three of Stewart and Revett's drawings of the eight winds
Three of Stewart and Revett’s drawings of the eight winds

The Athens of Stuart and Revett’s day was worlds away from the sprawling concrete metropolis the city has become, or even the elegant neoclassical city that it briefly was in the late 19th and early 20th century. Their drawings show Athens as a modest and rather ramshackle provincial town with houses nestled in and among the surviving ruins of antiquity. Even the Acropolis was covered with buildings, which were all cleared away after Greece became independent and Athens was made the new capital, with the aim of restoring the sacred rock to something approaching its ancient splendour. The Tower of the Winds, as the Antiquities of Athens shows, had half disappeared beneath centuries of rising street levels and building work.

View of the Tower of the Winds in the 18th century by Stuart and Revett
View of the Tower of the Winds in the 18th century by Stuart and Revett

Greece at this time was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, which had for centuries been largely inaccessible to foreigners and was only now relaxing its borders as its former power began to crumble. Italy, and especially Rome, by contrast had, for two centuries been the ultimate destination of the so-called “Grand Tour”, a jaunt around the continent by which the upper class young men (and ever so occasionally women) of northwest Europe completed their education. In the 18th century the buildings and artworks from the heart of ancient Roman civilisation had become familiar in countries like Britain, at least among the well to do, whereas the antiquities of Greece were largely unknown. Stuart and Revett’s book signalled the beginning of a growing interest in Greece in Britain and elsewhere. This new philhellenism would inspire a so-called Greek revival in British architecture and in the early nineteenth century would exert a profound influence over the works of the second generation of Romantic Poets – think of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, Shelley’s Hellas and, above all, the many poems by Byron on Greek themes.

Increasing fascination with Greece also led to British interventions in Greek affairs, some welcome others less so. Between 1801 to 1812 Thomas Bruce, the 7th of Earl of Elgin’s interest in ancient Greek art led him to remove substantial amounts of sculpture from the buildings on the Athenian Acropolis for shipment back to Britain. In 1832 Greece won a decade long war of independence against the Ottomans with significant help from British, French and Russian forces, all spurred on by philhellenic sentiment on the home front. Byron, of course, died in Greece having gone to fight for the cause. The creation of the Radcliffe Observatory, roughly halfway between Stuart and Revett’s publication and the birth of the modern Greek nation state must be set against this background. But the choice of the Tower of the Winds as a model for the building should probably be seen as more than merely an expression of philhellenism.

In the first place modelling the observatory on the Tower of the Winds must have had something to do with the ancient building’s function. The Tower of the Winds may not have been an observatory but it was a building that could plausibly be linked to scientific observation – not of the stars but of the elements; it was, as we saw last time, a monumental weather vane, sundial and water-clock. Geoffrey Tyack suggests that the water-clock could have played some role in the measurement of the stars. Although there is no ancient evidence for this, the device would certainly have allowed the measurement of time at night, when the sundials would not have worked. Whether or not the Tower of the Winds actually had anything to do with astronomy it is an intriguing suggestion that people in the 18th century might at least have thought it did. The Tower of the Winds, more than any other building known from antiquity (then and arguably still now) could be thought to represent the pinnacle of ancient achievement in the sciences just as the new observatory was at the forefront of the 18th century quest for knowledge.

The fact that the building was so clearly mentioned by Vitruvius, whose writings, ever since the Renaissance, had been seen as the cornerstone of western architecture, must also surely have added to its appeal. We need to remember that in the 18th century a large part of a decent education still meant an education in the Classics. Even if they weren’t able to cite the relevant passage of Vitruvius verbatim, members of the aristocracy and gentry – and certainly the academic community of Oxford, which was for the most part made up of aristocracy and gentry – would have known enough of the Classics to feel some thrill of excitement that Stuart and Revett had brought back illustrated proof of the survival of a monument from ancient times that was referred to by one of those sources. We can be sure that the drawings must have been received with some excitement in Britain because several other buildings were built in the 18th and 19th century that were modelled on the Tower.* Stuart and Revett themselves both designed buildings in the UK that were loosely based on the building.

Two of the representations of the signs of the zodiac on the observatory
Two of the representations of the signs of the zodiac on the observatory

The decoration of the observatory included other references to antiquity beyond the relief decorations of the winds. The semi-circular second storey was decorated with relief representations of the signs of the zodiac, which were based on the designs shown on another surviving artefact from antiquity, the globe carried by the so-called Farnese Atlas – a presumably Roman period statue (possibly a copy of a Hellenistic original) of the mythical Titan holding up the celestial sphere. Vitruvius tells us that the Tower of the Winds had been topped by a weathervane in the form of the merman Triton, fancifully restored on Stuart and Revett’s drawing (see the first reconstructed elevation drawing above) even though it had long since disappeared by their day. The observatory was topped not by a Triton but, rather appropriately, by statues of Atlas and Herakles supporting an undecorated globe, a reference to one of Herakles’ labours in which he relieved Atlas temporarily of his task so that Atlas could retrieve the Apples of the Hysperides for him. An educated viewer of the observatory would no doubt have made the link between the reliefs of the zodiac, the Farnese Atlas and the sculpture on the roof. The north side of the observatory was also decorated with relief depictions of morning, noon and evening, personified as human figures in highly Classical style. The building as a whole was therefore designed to appeal to the sensibilities of an educated audience steeped in knowledge of ancient culture and art.

The Farnese Atlas
The Farnese Atlas
Atlas and Herakles on the roof of the observatory
Atlas and Herakles on the roof of the observatory

In understanding the particular appeal of the Tower of the Winds as a model for an astronomical observatory we also need to think of the academic climate at the time it was built. In the 18th century the first rifts between the humanities and the exact sciences – rifts that have widened by our own day, largely through the increasingly specialised knowledge required in the exact sciences, into a seemingly unbridgeable gulf – had yet to appear. This was the golden age of the amateur gentleman polymath who was able to stay abreast of, and actually understand, the latest advances in thinking across the full breadth of academic endeavour from philology to chemistry, from economics to biology. Travels to exotic foreign lands – as Greece at that time surely was – to seek out long lost antiquities and scanning the heavens to better understand the orbits of the planets and movements of the stars were both carried out in the same Enlightenment spirit of pushing back the boundaries of human understanding.

Stuart and Revett’s mission to Athens had been financed by the Society of the Dilettanti, a sort of gentlemen’s club founded early in the 18th century to further the study of antiquity. The society still exists today. Strikingly many of the club’s early members were also actively engaged in research in the exact scientists and were also fellows of the Royal Society. In copying the Tower of the Winds the Radcliffe Observatory was arguably making a reference not just to the ancient building, but also to Stuart and Revett’s cutting edge research and groundbreaking publication. In other words, while we can now only see the Tower of the Winds as something very old, in the 18th century it was possible to see it as something both ancient and invigoratingly new all at once. And the observatory as the first (nearly) octagonal building in Oxford would certainly have looked strikingly new at the time it was built.

Thinking about the creation of the Radcliffe Observatory shows that if we know something about the historical context in which a building was erected it is at least possible to make some educated guesses as to what it might have meant to the people at the time it was built. This discussion has strayed somewhat beyond the period I am concerned with in my research – Roman Greece – but the central issue that I’ve looked at here is close to the one I am exploring for the ancient world – the meaning of public monuments.

If you happen to have read my last piece you might have noticed that I didn’t actually do what I said I would do this time, which was to consider the observatory in connection to another monument that stands nearby – a fountain with a statue of Triton as its centrepiece. I had far too much fun talking about the observatory and realised that what I want to say about its relationship (or lack of one) to the fountain is really a completely different issue. I really will discuss this in my next piece where I want to use these two modern structures to think about the way we interpret ancient evidence for the meaning of monuments.


* Quite a few people contacted me after my last piece to tell me about buildings that copy the Tower of the Winds, including a few I’d not heard about before. If you know any more please do let me know. I will make a list.

The Two Towers (of the Winds)

In my last piece I considered what some pieces of Roman period architectural sculpture that copied sculpture from the Athenian Parthenon might tells us about how the Greeks living under the Empire thought about that Classical temple. For this, and my next piece, I’ve been inspired by an 18th century building in Oxford that copies architectural sculpture from one of the most familiar monuments of Roman Athens.

The Radcliffe Observatory

Every day just before I arrive at my office – I usually write there in the morning and head to the library in the afternoon for new research – I pass by the Radcliffe Observatory, an elegant octagonal tower in neoclassical style that would probably have become more familiar as an Oxford landmark if it wasn’t located a good ten minute’s walk to the north of the city centre and away from most of the old colleges. It is now rather tucked away behind the swish new, glass-fronted maths building in the so-called Radcliffe observatory quarter, an area currently under redevelopment by the university. Some of you might recognize the building because it featured prominently in a recent episode of the detective series Lewis (or so I’ve been told. Don’t tell me who did it, I haven’t seen it yet!). For some reason the Gibson building, where I actually have my desk hasn’t yet featured in Morse or either of its spin offs.

The Gibson Building
The Gibson Building

The Radcliffe Observatory functioned as an observatory from its opening in 1773 to 1934, when it was taken over by the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research. It became a part of Green College in 1979. That college merged in 2007 with Templeton College to create Green-Templeton college to which the building now belongs. It now houses the dining room and common room of the college. I’m hoping to get the chance to see the building from the inside at some point.

The first glimpse I ever caught of the building was when I visited Oxford some years ago and went on a highly enjoyable open-top bus tour. I don’t remember the audio guide saying anything about the observatory but in the distance, above the rooftops, I recognized it immediately as a copy of one of my favourite of the surviving monuments of ancient Athens, the enigmatic Tower of the Winds.

The Tower of the Winds stands near the eastern entrance of the so-called Roman Agora and is one of the best preserved of all ancient buildings in Greece. The design of the building is, at least in terms of the buildings that survive from antiquity, unique – both in terms of its architecture and its function. The fact that there is nothing to compare it with means that it is very difficult to date on stylistic grounds. We also don’t know who paid for it though scholars sometimes assume it must have been a gift to the city by some Hellenistic king or wealthy Roman. We do, however, know that it was already standing by the mid 1st century BC because it is mentioned briefly in a work written at that time by the Roman author Varro. The Augustan period architect Vitruvius (slightly later) also discusses the building. From these two literary references and from studying the building itself we do at least have a good idea what it was used for – it was a kind of public clock and weather station.

The Tower of the Winds
The Tower of the Winds

The ancient authors don’t actually call the building the “Tower of the Winds” – that name has been given to the building in modern times (there’s also no reason to assume that the term Varro uses to refer to the building, “horologium”, or “horologion” in Greek, must be what the Athenians knew it as, as some scholars do. The word describes what the building was, a timepiece, and isn’t necessarily an actual name for it). The reason for the modern name is that the tops of the eight faces of the building are decorated in high relief with representations of the eight directional winds, shown as flying men wearing clothing and carrying objects appropriate to where they come from. Boreas, the cold north wind, for example wears warm clothes and is blowing a horn to symbolize the ferocious gusts coming from that direction and Kaikias (“Badness”), the north-eastern wind, is carrying a shield full of hailstones. Now that I’ve seen the Radcliffe observatory up close it is clear that the building isn’t really a copy of the Tower of the Winds at all but it’s octagonal shape and its decoration with copies of the distinctive relief figures is enough to immediately evoke the Athenian building. But the issue of copying is one of the things I want to talk about next time. Here I’d like to focus more on the Tower of the Winds itself.

Apelliotes, the southeast wind, carrying fruit (left - Athens; right - Oxford)
Apelliotes, the southeast wind, carrying fruit (left – Tower of the Winds, Athens; right – Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford)

The Tower of the Winds was equipped with sundials on all eight of its faces, the lines of which can still be seen today. There’s been some debate in the scholarly literature about whether these sundials belonged to the original building or were added later. Lines scratched on stone are sadly impossible to date scientifically but I’m inclined to accept they were part of the original building. Vitruvius tells us the name of the building’s architect – Andronikos of Kyrrhos (a place in Macedonia). Varro also says it was built by a man from Kyrrhos. This Andronikos doesn’t appear in any other literary sources but he must be the same Andronikos of Kyrrhos attested in an inscription from the island polis of Tenos as installing a sundial in that city. Considering that the only two facts we have about this man are that (a) he built a sundial somewhere and (b) he built the Tower of the Winds, it seems to me rather likely that the sundials on the Tower of the Winds were also part of his design and nowadays most scholars seem to accept that they were.

Sundial on the Tower of the Winds
Sundial on the Tower of the Winds

The Tower was also equipped with a water clock, which would have allowed people to tell the time on a cloudy day. It would be going too far to say that water clocks were common in antiquity but they are known elsewhere. The simplest kind were those used back in Classical Athens for timing law court speeches and which simply consisted of vases with holes near the base that could contain enough water to time a particular type of speech. More complex public examples are known but the one in the Tower of the Winds seems to have been one of the most elaborate.

Water tank at the rear of the Tower of the Winds
Water tank at the rear of the Tower of the Winds

A tank on the outside of the building was fed by water from a spring from the Acropolis. The tank then filled a basin within the building, probably using a system of valves to regulate the pressure and to ensure the inflow speed was constant. Cuttings on the floor of the inside of the building suggest there must have been some kind of mechanism of moving parts which was presumably activated by a float rising in the basin. Some scholars have suggested that there may even have been moving statues – there are some references to such things existing elsewhere in antiquity – but unfortunately we will never know for sure. It seems clear, however, that people would have been able to enter the building and somehow, from the position of the mechanism, know what time it was.

Although the Tower of the Winds is a fascinating structure in so many ways I have particular affection for the building because it featured in a particularly important argument in my PhD thesis, which was about the changing use of Greek agoras in Hellenistic and Roman times. The argument has to do with what the Tower suggests about the area in which it stood.

The general consensus among scholars is that the “Roman Agora”, constructed with funds donated to the city of Athens by Julius Caesar and the first Roman Emperor Augustus, in some way came to replace the old Classical Agora which lay some eighty meters to the west of it. The idea is that the creation of the new building, which was almost certainly a commercial market, meant that the old agora, which had been the heart of the city for over half a millennium, now lost its function as a marketplace. This is generally accepted as a sign of the lamentable decline of the old agora, the vibrant public square where people had gathered to discuss philosophy and politics, while buying their vegetables and fish, in the golden days of the 5th Century democracy.

The Roman Agora at Athens with the Tower of the Winds in the background
The Roman Agora at Athens with the Tower of the Winds in the background

This idea that the new complex took over some of the functions of the Classical Agora is reinforced by the very name “Roman Agora”. It suggests that the old square had been the agora in pre-Roman times, while the market of Caesar and Augustus was the agora in Roman times. In my time spent in Athens I’ve heard people, and not only tourists but also students and scholars, talk about the two squares in this way. In truth the two agoras continued to exist alongside each other and the Classical Agora remained the more important of the two. Although we can assume that there wasn’t much need for a food market in the old square, there isn’t even any direct evidence that all forms of trading there came to an end.

The reason the Tower of the Winds is relevant to this issue has to do with timing. The market building was probably opened in sometime between 10 and 2 BC but Varro mentions the Tower of the Winds around 50 BC. He doesn’t give any indication that it is a new building. Construction on the Roman Agora might have begun that early – it probably took a long time to complete because of the troubled time of the Roman Civil wars but the important point is that the Tower of the Winds clearly predates the market building and possibly by quite some time. A case has been made by Hermann Kienast – a strong case in my opinion, for reasons that I won’t go into here – that the Tower of the Winds was constructed in the mid second century BC which would mean that it was over a century older than the Roman Agora.

The presence of a monumental clock suggests that this area was already an area of public space before the Roman Agora was built. It is more than likely that there was already a marketplace here because a desire to regulate trading hours would explain the need for a public clock. Furthermore, the only food shops that have ever been excavated on the Classical Agora, were on the very southeast edge of the square alongside a road that stretched toward where the Roman Agora would later be built. Curiously the idea that there was a marketplace here before the Roman Agora was built has actually been fairly widely accepted – and even by the same scholars who also hold that the Roman Agora took trade away from the old square. That makes very little sense to me. My argument is that all the Roman Agora did was provide more splendid premises for an activity that was already taking place on the same spot. This means that we cannot simply point the finger at Caesar and Augustus and give Rome the blame for putting an end to the old agora functioning as a marketplace. This at least puts a dent in the interpretation that public life in the city of Athens must have declined under Roman rule and calls into question how easy it is to draw conclusions about civic vitality from looking at monumental building programmes.

But lets return to the Tower of the Winds itself. As I already mentioned, as well as being a clock Vitruvius and Varro both describe how it also functioned as a monumental weather vane. There was a pointer on the roof that turned in the direction that the winds were blowing so that the relief figures were not only decorative but also served a practical function. Varro says that somehow the direction of the wind was also indicated inside the building, though no appropriate hole in the roof has been found. The vane, presumably made of bronze and sadly long since lost, had the form, so Vitruvius tells us, of a Triton, the half-man/half fish, son of Poseidon, who we encountered last time serving as an architectural support on the Roman odeion on the Classical Agora. Was this perhaps one more connection that people were meant to make when they saw that building in the second century AD?

I’ll return to that question next time when I want to think a bit more about what it meant in our more recent history when buildings and monuments made references to antiquity. I also want to consider how the ways that we “read” such architecture today can help with, or perhaps even get in the way of, how we think about the changing meaning of monuments in ancient times. I’ll be looking at the Radcliffe Observatory in a bit more detail and I’ll also be considering another monument I pass every day on my way to work, a statue that stands (by chance or design?) within a stone’s throw of the observatory. A statue of – yes, you guessed it – the merman Triton.

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.

The Parthenon and its sculptures in Roman times (Part one)

The Parthenon
The Parthenon

A few months ago when George Clooney was in the news for saying that he thought the so-called Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece it looked rather as though he had been unwittingly drawn into a quarrel he knew little about. He had simply given a frank and spontaneous answer to a question by a Greek reporter during an interview to promote his new film The Monuments Men, a film about soldiers working to return stolen Nazi art to its rightful owners at the end of the Second World War. Now that the new Mrs Clooney, human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, has begun advising the Greek government on their campaign the whole business is starting to look rather more orchestrated. It turns out that the firm Alamuddin works for had taken up the case three years ago in 2011. Was George really as surprised by the question about the marbles as he seemed to be?

Whatever the truth of the matter thanks to the Clooneys the Parthenon Marbles are back in the limelight and receiving considerable media attention. The debate surrounding the best place for the marbles has been going on ever since Lord Elgin removed them from the Parthenon, brought them back to Britain and sold them to the British museum in the early 19th Century. Recent opinion pieces in the British national press arguing both for and against the return of the sculptures to Greece retread familiar ground: the legality or otherwise of Elgin’s actions, the condition the building was in when he took the marbles, whether they would have been looked after by the Greeks, whether they have been looked after by the British Museum, whether the claims of a nation state to ancient cultural treasures made within what is now its territory should outweigh those of a supposedly universal museum, whether the sculptures would look better seen in the light of Greece.

One thing that both sides of the debate agree on, however, is the outstanding artistic beauty of the sculptures themselves. Reading some of the praise heaped upon the Parthenon sculptures I can’t help wondering whether the author is really giving their own opinion or simply repeating what everyone always says about them. The problem is that the Parthenon sculptures – like the Mona Lisa or Hamlet –are now so entrenched in their position at the pinnacle of the canon of western art that it is near impossible to approach them with an open mind. The sculptures are undoubtedly masterpieces but I am not so sure that they are really in a completely different league to all the other surviving pieces of sculpture from the ancient world, as is often suggested.

I believe we need to recognize the extent to which our attitude toward these sculptures has been shaped by their recent history and, most importantly, by the debate about where they belong, which encourages both sides to talk in superlatives. To challenge our preconceptions about the Parthenon marbles it is worth thinking about how they have been viewed and thought about in other periods in history. In this and my next blog piece I’d like to discuss what we know about how the Parthenon was thought of at the time of the Roman Empire.

The fullest ancient description we have of the Parthenon actually comes from a Roman period author called Pausanias. A Greek from Asia Minor, he made a sort of cultural pilgrimage to Greece in the mid 2nd Century and spent a couple of decades travelling around visiting the cities and sanctuaries and writing a description of the places he saw. His main interests were in buildings and monuments that were either already very old or were of great religious significance. As such, it is not surprising that he discusses the Parthenon, a temple that was by then already six hundred years old. What is possibly surprising to modern readers is what he decides to focus on. This is what he says:

“As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon. The statue itself is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx—the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my description of Boeotia—and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief. These griffins, Aristeas of Proconnesus says in his poem, fight for the gold with the Arimaspi beyond the Issedones. The gold which the griffins guard, he says, comes out of the earth; the Arimaspi are men all born with one eye; griffins are beasts like lions, but with the beak and wings of an eagle. I will say no more about the griffins. The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits (around 1.8 m –CD) high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief. Hesiod and others have sung how this Pandora was the first woman; before Pandora was born there was as yet no womankind. The only portrait statue I remember seeing here is one of the emperor Hadrian, and at the entrance one of Iphicrates, who accomplished many remarkable achievements.” Pausanias (1.24.5-7)

It is clear that for Pausanias the Parthenon was mainly remarkable because it contained the colossal, twelve meters tall, chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos (the virgin), from which it took its name. The statue had been made in the 5th Century BC when the Parthenon was built, by Pheidias, the same artist who made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. We know from other ancient sources that such statues could cost many times the amount it would have cost to build the temples in which they stood. Estimates have been made that more than 1000kg of gold would have been needed to have made the statue that stood in the Parthenon and that it would have cost twice as much to make as it did to build the Parthenon itself. The statue has long since disappeared. A slightly gaudy reconstruction, based on the description and on ancient small-scale replicas that do survive, can be seen in the reconstruction of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. It gives an impression of the imposing scale of the statue if possibly not the religious awe that it must have inspired.

The Nashville Athena Parthenos
The Nashville Athena Parthenos

Pausanias does mention the sculptures that decorated the building’s two pediments, or gables, but he is more interested in the stories they portray than in their quality as works of art. A lot of the pedimental sculpture was destroyed or lost long before Elgin ever arrived in Greece but most of the pieces that have survived are to be found among the other “Elgin Marbles” in the British museum. Pausanias’ description is important because it is actually our best guide to working out who the sculpted figures of various gods, most of them now headless, actually are. Pausanias strikingly says nothing of the metopes, the panels that decorated the outside of the temple, and depicted scenes of mythical battles, some of which are also in London. His most glaring omission for anyone familiar with the building or its sculptures, however, must be that he says nothing whatsoever about the famous ionic frieze that ran around the top of the cella, or main building. The frieze has often been claimed to be the high point of ancient, or even western art, and yet Pausanias remarkably appears not even to have noticed it. In fact no ancient author describes the frieze, which is one of the reasons that archaeologists and art historians have had such a hard time agreeing on what it depicts. It clearly shows a procession but which one? The procession of the four yearly Athenian festival, the Great Panathenaea? A particular Panathenaic procession? A mythical procession? A celebration of the Athenians killed at the Battle of Marathon? These and other suggestions have all been made.

Part of the Parthenon Frieze - in the British Museum
Part of the Parthenon Frieze – in the British Museum

Seen in the British Museum at eye-level or reproduced in a book it is easy to forget that the frieze when mounted on the building was in fact rather difficult to see. It was high up on the outside of the cella wall so that viewing it from beginning to end would have meant either continual interruption by columns if standing outside the building or quite some neck craning if standing within the colonnade. The frieze would also have been permanently in shadow. It is hard to imagine that Pausanias or any ancient visitor could have gazed on it with quite the same leisurely awe as modern tourists. Its inaccessible position does not, of course, diminish its artistic quality. If anything it is all the more remarkable that the sculptors went to such great lengths to achieve such artistry for a frieze that could not easily be seen. The reason they did so must have been because the Parthenon was built to honour the city’s most important goddess. This also explains Pausanias’ response to the building. He saw it not as a magnificent architectural or artistic achievement but rather as a place of veneration.

Religion had not stood still in the half millennium since the Parthenon had been built and Rome had been responsible for important changes. Perhaps the biggest of these was the introduction of the Imperial Cult, the worship of the Emperor. The presence of Hadrian’s statue inside the Parthenon suggests that that particular emperor – famous for his love of Greek culture and a great benefactor to the city of Athens – might have been worshipped there. It was not uncommon in the Greek speaking half of the Empire for emperors to have their cult alongside that of one of the Olympian gods in the same temple. However, as Pausanias’ lavish description of Pheidias’ statue suggests, Athena was still the most important goddess in Roman Athens. She was the reason that the Parthenon remained a deeply sacred building.

Pausanias’ focus on the statue and his lack of interest in the metopes and frieze does not necessarily mean that he didn’t recognize them as great works of art. Historians are actually rather fond of drawing conclusions based on what Pausanias doesn’t tell us and I don’t want to go too far down that road. Pausanias also fails to mention the Caryatids, the six sculpted women who serve as architectural supports for the porch of the nearby Erechtheion, one of which was also brought back to Britain by Lord Elgin and it is very hard to imagine how these statues could not have caught his eye. He might have been impressed by the Parthenon sculptures but simply have chosen not to write about them for some reason. We also cannot assume that all Roman period viewers would have looked at the Parthenon in the same way as Pausanias. Even if he wasn’t too taken with them it is possible that they might have made a much bigger impression on other visitors. At the very least, however, Pausanias’ description of the Parthenon challenges our modern ideas about what was important about this building and suggest that in ancient times, and more particularly in the Roman period, priorities might have been rather different than our own. Pausanias’ description does not provide our only insight into the way in which the Parthenon sculptures were thought of in Roman Athens.

Next time I will consider some intriguing architectural sculptures from other buildings in Athens which were set up very close in time to Pausanias’ visit to Athens and which deliberately copy pieces from the Parthenon.