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.

A tale of two traditions – portrait statues in Rome and Greece

In the piece before last I talked about the idea of seeing ancient cities as museums, inspired by the book I was reading at the time – “Ancient Rome as a Museum” by Steven Rutledge. I announced that “next time” I’d discuss an issue that the book had made me think about which is of relevance to my own research. Then a sacred pig ran across my path (metaphorically in the form of a blog post by Mary Beard) just as the poor animal had run across the path (literally) of a group of cart pulling donkeys, leading to its commemoration by its bereaved owner on one of the more bizarre grave monuments to survive from antiquity. I ended up writing about that instead. So now to return to the issue I was planning to discuss: the possibility that both Greek and Roman culture might have  independently developed the tradition of erecting honorific statues to reward service to the state.

Rutledge’s book considers a wealth of (mainly literary) evidence for the vast array of “cultural property” (statues, paintings, weapons, tapestries, silverware etc.) on display in ancient Rome. Most of the evidence he talks about clusters in the period of the late Republic/early Empire (1st century BC/1st century AD). In and among all the artwork looted from conquered cities, much of which consisted of Greek statues, were a number of genuinely Roman monuments that had originally been set up in the city over more than half a millennium of history. Although I knew about some of these monuments already, what struck me on seeing them discussed together , was just how many supposedly early commemorative portrait statues there were in the city, and just how old these monuments were believed to be. The writers who tell us about them believed that some were set up right back at the beginning of the Republic some half a millennium ago, or even before that.

Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge  by Charles Le Brun (1642–43)
Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge by Charles Le Brun (1642–43)

Livy and Pliny the Elder, writing respectively in the late 1st century BC and mid first century AD, both mention the statue of Horatius Cocles that had been erected on the Forum to commemorate his heroic one-man defence of a bridge against an entire invading Etruscan army. The war in question – whether the battle itself took place is another matter – is now thought to have taken place around the year 509 BC. Pliny also tells us about a statue of a magistrate erected in the mid 5th century as a reward for reducing the price of grain in the city.

Among only four statues of women known to have been set up in the city in the pre-Imperial period, one was believed to have been even older than the statues of these great men. It portrayed Gaia Caecilia the virtuous wife of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of the seven kings believed to have ruled Rome before the founding of the Republic. The early history of Rome is extremely hazy and Tarquinius Priscus may have been nothing more than a legend but if there was any grain of truth to his, or his wife’s, existence then they would have to have lived in the late 7th or early 6th century BC.

Now there’s nothing particularly incredible about the Romans having portrait statues at such an early date. The Greeks were setting up statues of men and women in archaic times and began sculpting lifelike portrait statues in both stone and bronze in the fifth century BC. Around the same time Rome’s immediate neighbours the Etruscans, quite likely under Greek influence, were producing (fairly) realistic human statues, mainly in terracotta, to represent the dead on their tombs and to portray the gods in their temples. The Romans may therefore have been influenced by Etruscan culture to develop their own portrait statuary around the same time. What makes the Roman statues I’ve just mentioned so intriguing is that they were apparently believed to be commemorative statues, erected by the community as rewards for exceptional service to the state.

Sarcophagus of Spouses. Painted terracotta. C. 520 BCE. Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy (Source: Boundless. “Archaic Art.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 03 Jul). 2014. Retrieved 23 Mar. 2015 from
Sarcophagus of Spouses. Painted terracotta. C. 520 BCE. Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy
(Source: Boundless. “Archaic Art.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 03 Jul). 2014. Retrieved 23 Mar. 2015 from

There is no evidence, so far as I know, for honorific public statues in Etruscan culture. The habit of erecting such monuments in Greek culture – a habit that would spread throughout the Greek world and persist into well into the period of Roman rule – according to the current scholarly consensus didn’t take off until the 4th century BC. It wasn’t until the Romans began to expand their political influence in the eastern Mediterranean in the late 3rd century BC that the well-known and profound transformation of Roman culture under Greek influence took place. The reports of these statues therefore raise the possibility that the Romans and Greeks developed their own, largely independent traditions, of erecting honorific statues. For my purposes this would raise all sorts of questions about how these two traditions then became intertwined once Greece became a part of the Roman Empire.

Of course we should be extremely sceptical as to whether the early statues attested in fairly late sources were really as old as those authors claimed. I’ve already discussed the way that in the Roman period the Greeks seem to have made up stories about having ancient tomb monuments in their cities and there’s every reason to suppose that the Romans too would have made up such stories about statuary monuments to create tangible links with legendary heroes from their distant past. Still it is hard to imagine that such statues were complete fabrications and that they had actually been set up near to the time that Livy and Pliny were writing. It is rather more likely that that they were either statues that had been standing for some time and which had become misinterpreted or that they did indeed represent the subjects that they were believed to but that they had been set up posthumously, perhaps centuries after their deaths and not during their lifetimes.

The so-called "Capitoline Brutus"
The so-called “Capitoline Brutus”

There is a rather famous bronze portrait bust found in Rome and known as the Capitoline Brutus, because it was once believed to portray the late 6th century founder of the Republic. There are actually no grounds whatsoever to think that the bust does represent Brutus. In any case it seems to date stylistically to the 4th century BC at the earliest and more likely to the 3rd. It therefore clearly cannot have been a contemporary portrait of the man. Whether it was intended to represent an historical figure like Brutus or somebody from the period in which it was made the statue at least shows that the Romans were erecting lifelike portrait statues around the time when portrait statues were really taking off in the Greek world.

Perhaps the statues of Horatius Cocles and Gaia Caecilia were also monuments of the 4th or 3rd centuries. Maybe the Romans of that time had erected them in a similar spirit of antiquarianism to that in which the Victorians erected the statue of Richard the Lionheart that still stands outside the Palace of Westminister. By the late Republic/early Empire the circumstances in which such statues were set up could easily have become forgotten so that people mistakenly thought they were much older.59935465

All in all I would say it looks likely that the supposedly ancient statues at Rome, like those mentioned by Livy and Pliny were already at least a few hundred years old by the time they were writing. Even if these monuments had been set up as late as the 3rd century BC that would still make them old enough to have been set up without much direct influence by contemporary developments in the Greek world.

Whether the Romans really did develop the custom of setting up honorific statues in parallel to the Greeks, rather than in direct emulation of them, however, what is perhaps most interesting about the reports of these statues is that this seems to be what the Romans themselves (and presumably the Greeks) believed had happened. While Roman literature from the late Republic and early Empire demonstrates a keen awareness of many areas in which interactions with the Greeks had influenced (or corrupted as many of the sources would have it) Roman culture, the Romans apparently thought that they had been setting up honorific monuments since their earliest history and for at least as long as the Greeks, if not longer.

The existence of these two traditions of erecting honorific monuments raises some very important questions for my own research into the public monuments of Greece in the Roman period. In the centuries I am looking at Greek cities set up statues not only for their leading citizens but also for powerful Romans. Romans from Italy moved to Greece and were among the people who would have seen these monuments. At the same time the Greeks, and especially local elites themselves fell increasingly under Roman influence, were made Roman citizens and can be thought of as “becoming Roman”. Against this background it is worth thinking about the various intentions of different groups and individuals in erecting such monuments and the response of different kinds of viewers to seeing them.

Would a citizen of Rome given a statue in Athens see the honour as carrying connotations of heroic valour as exemplified by Horatius Cocles’ statue? Or would he be more sensitive to local traditions of honorific portraits where statues were, in contrast to Rome, more often awarded to politicians, orators or philosophers than to conquering generals?

When a Greek community honoured an emperor with a statue was the implication that he was being equated the semi-divine heroes whose statues had adorned Greek public spaces since time immemorial yet who had no direct equivalent at Rome? Or would they have been aware of Roman statuary traditions and have been aiming to flatter the emperor that he shared something of the Republican virtues of the first consul Brutus?

And would the wife of a Roman governor honoured with a statue at a small town in Greece know or care that the tradition of erecting statues for women had a much longer history in that part of the world than it did at Rome but that women there typically received statues to honour their role as representatives of their family rather than to exalt them for their own perceived virtues?

It is a particularly thorny problem to try to disentangle the strands of cultural interplay that took place when the Romans, themselves profoundly influenced by Greek culture, conquered Greece and began to coerce and entice the Greeks into their own way of life. I am hopeful that by looking at the types of monuments that were erected in different types of public setting, by considering their intended audience and how the drew on other monuments in the same setting for meaning, it is going to be possible to offer answers to at least some of these questions.

On the death of the friendly pig. A tale of tragedy and disappointment, both ancient and modern

Like, I suspect, most people interested in the ancient world I’m a keen reader of Mary Beard’s blog “It’s a Don’s Life”. This week my imagination was captured by a puzzle she posed her readers – the interpretation of a grave stele from Roman Macedonia which seems to commemorate the death of a beloved pig. The stone was inscribed with a verse inscription extoling the pig’s friendly character, describing his travels and ending with his tragic demise in a road-traffic accident, crushed “by the force of a wheel”. The scene of the animal’s death is vividly depicted in a carved relief at the top of the stone, which shows him being trampled by some donkeys drawing a cart. What exactly was this monument Mary Beard asked? Was it real or some kind of spoof, perhaps the grave of a man who’s name for some reason was “pig” or sounded like pig, or a literary exercise given permanent form in stone?

My first instinct was to take the monument seriously as a real grave monument to a pig. If it was just a joke then it must have been a rather expensive one, as Mary Beard herself remarked. The first association that came to my mind was with Eleusis, the site of an extremely important ancient Athenian cult based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, or Kore (the maiden). Persephone had, of course, been taken by Hades to the underworld to be his wife and her distraught mother Demeter searched the earth for her. As goddess of agriculture Demeter’s grief stopped the plants from growing and caused misery for mankind. Eleusis was the place where, during her wanderings, she was believed to have taught mankind the secrets of agriculture. Demeter eventually found her daughter and made a compromise with Zeus, the king of the gods, that she be allowed to return to the earth for so many months of the year spending the rest of her time with her new husband in the world of the dead. For nearly a millennium at Eleusis, at a big annual festival, people would come from all over the Greek speaking world to be initiated into a cult of Demeter and Persephone in the hope that Persephone would intercede with Hades on their behalf to secure them a better life after death than the miserable shadowy existence that awaited non-initiates.

Marble statue of a pig found at Eleusis
Marble statue of a pig found at Eleusis

But what has all this got to do with pigs? Well, we don’t know a lot about what went on at Eleusis. The cult was a “mystery cult”, so-called because initiates were supposed to keep their experience of initiation a secret. But from a few scraps of information in the ancient sources, and in some later polemical Christian writers who were naturally very hostile to the cult, one of the things we do know is that initiates had to spend a period of some months rearing a sacred piglet. If I remember rightly what I’ve read about this they then had to take a bath with the pig in the sea at some point before taking it along to their initiation where they presumably sacrificed it. A marble statue of a pig has even been found at Eleusis which was most likely a votive offering left behind by someone who’d gone through the rites.

The grave monument from Macedonia seemed to me to suggest a parallel to the Eleusinian mysteries. The inscription speaks of the pig’s travels through various places in Macedonia and ends by saying “I have now lost the light longing to see Emathia and the Phallic Chariot. Here now I lie, owing nothing to death anymore”. Another thing we know about the rites at Eleusis is that they culminated in a moment in which certain sacred objects were shown to the initiates. Although we don’t know what these objects were, one theory is that they might have included a phallus, as a potent symbol of fertility. The epitaph sounds to me as though the pig, and his owner, were also heading for some cult place where they too hoped to experience a moment of revelation. I know rather little about the cults of Macedonia and from a brief online search I wasn’t able to find anything about a mystery cult at Emathia but it is quite conceivable that there was one. If the owner had had to spend some time looking after his pig, like the initiates at Eleusis, that would explain why he had become attached to it. For the animal then to be killed in an accident before the initiation could take place would have been tragedy enough to explain the setting up of the monument.

So, what did I do with these ideas? Well that’s where the modern tragedy and disappointment begins. I compressed them down into the 280 characters allowed by two messages on Twitter and with a degree of trepidation tweeted them to Mary Beard. Would she retweet my idea or mention it the comments section of her blog? I sat back and waited but no response came. I have never met Mary Beard and I know from things that she’s written about Twitter that she gets inundated with tweets so most probably she hadn’t even seen my message. Or, I wondered, perhaps she had seen it but just thought that the idea was plain daft. I thought about posting it again as a comment on her blog page but that seemed a little pushy. I had other things to do so I let it go and forgot about it.

Until, that is, yesterday evening when I looked at my Twitter feed and saw the following message by the Humanities Division of Oxford University:

“Via ‪@wmarybeard: The real experts have given a view on that pig’s epitaph ‪ including ‪@oxfordclassics Peter Thonemann”

I’m an admirer of Peter Thonemann’s work and I’ve met him – just a few times – since I’ve been in Oxford. He’s read some of my work and given me some useful feedback. I was sure that he’d have something sensible to say on the subject of the pig’s monument so I clicked on the link. I was, I confess, also sneakily hoping that that “including” meant that others were also going to get an honorable mention and that my idea about the mystery cult might have got through after all. Imagine how I felt when I read the following correspondence from Dr Thonemann posted by Mary Beard:

“It’s a perfectly bona fide pig, killed in the course of an Edessan festival, probably to Demeter. The pig’s owner had come a long way (along the via Egnatia, nicely described in the epigram) as a pilgrim to the festival. The pig was run over by a four-horse chariot carrying a monumental phallus (depicted on the stele) during the main festival procession. This numinous death gave the pig’s owner the spooks, and prompted the surprisingly lavish high-quality stele for the unfortunate porker. The pig’s owner had probably been intending to sacrifice this very pig later on in the course of the very same festival.
Just think – if you’d brought a pig a hundred miles to sacrifice it at a festival, only to find that the goddess preferred to see it crushed under the wheels of a chariot carrying an enormous willy, wouldn’t you set up a stele to commemorate it?”

Apart from the fact that he thinks the pig’s accident occurred during the festival and my reading was that the poor animal never made it that far the interpretation is near enough exactly the same as my own!

Now I don’t think for one second that Peter Thonemann has stolen my idea. It often happens in the world of science that two researchers arrive at the same eureka moment independently. Just as Newton and Leibniz were both working on the invention of calculus at the same time without knowing it and Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace simultaneously formulated their independent theories of evolution by natural selection so too, it seems, with the solution to the Mystery of the Macedonian Pig Monument.

I must admit I draw some satisfaction from knowing that my idea was a sound one – sound enough for Peter Thonemann to also come up with it, and Mary Beard to accept it. Still, I can’t help feeling just a little a bit like Elisha Gray must have when he arrived at the patent office to register his new invention of the telephone only to discover that Alexander Graham Bell had got there slightly earlier on the very same day.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this. Perhaps it’s to do with how best to use social media to put your ideas across. Or maybe it’s simply that it’s always advisable to keep your sacred pig on a short leash.

What did the Greeks – and what do we – understand about economics?

One of the many, many words that the English language owes to ancient Greek is “economics”. The irony here is that the Greeks (or the Romans for that matter) had no understanding whatsoever of economics as we understand it today. The word derives from “oikos” (house) and “nomos” (law, order). In the early 4th century BC Xenophon wrote a book called the “oikonomikos” or “household manager” and that’s the closest thing we get to an actual economic treatise for the whole of antiquity. Looking up the word “economics” in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the first attested appearances in English were in the 16th Century when it was also used to mean the “art of household management”. In a world where we’re constantly bombarded in the media with the importance of “the economy” it’s hard for us to imagine that modern economic thinking, and with it the modern use of the word, only really began in the 18th century.

An economic graph of the kind we're all so used to seeing
An economic graph of the kind we’re all so used to seeing

For the last weeks the volatile confrontation between Greece and the rest of the EU has dominated the headlines and generated endless speculation about the potential outcome. In the run up to the UK general election voters are polled constantly not only on who they will vote for but also which party they trust most to manage the economy. It seems to be much less common for voters to be asked where they rank the economy on their list of priorities and I often wonder about the extent to which such polls work to reinforce the idea that the economy (for which read: the pursuit of economic growth) matters above all else. Nonetheless there can be no escaping that the economy looms very large in the modern collective experience. To fully appreciate the strangeness and exoticness of ancient Greek and Roman culture we need to try to think away this way of looking at the world and recognize that their understanding of economics was minimal and that they may also have cared far less about economic issues than we do today.

Occasionally we do get glimpses in the written sources of governments carrying out what seem to be surprisingly modern economic policies. The 6th century Athenian lawgiver Solon is said to have banned the export from Athens of any product apart from olive oil, which seems to show a remarkable degree of government concern for stimulating trade; Perikles is supposed to have initiated his famous 5th century building project on the Acropolis of Athens – the project that included the Parthenon – partly in order to create work for people which sounds rather like the “New Deal” by which Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression. (Interestingly both these reports are found in biographies by the Roman period author Plutarch, which does raise the issue of whether economic understanding might have been slightly different then than it had been in earlier periods of Greek history).

On the other hand, however, there’s the notorious Price Edict of Diocletian, by which the late 3rd century AD Roman Emperor attempted to hold back inflation by making a list of the maximum prices people in the Empire were allowed to charge for all sorts of products. Needless to say this economic equivalent of King Cnut telling the tide to turn back was an unmitigated failure and demonstrates quite clearly how naïve thinking on economic matters could be in the ancient world even in the highest circles of imperial government.

An inscribed copy of Diocletian's Edict on Maximum Prices
One of many surviving  inscribed copies of Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices

Nobody in ancient society would have recognized economics as a field of study or a force through which their world was shaped. That’s not the same thing, of course, as saying that there was no economy in the ancient world. Of course there was. People, for the most part needed to work in order to live, cities were dependent on foodstuffs, consumer products and services and the Roman Empire taxed its subjects to pay for its armies and infrastructure. The people of the ancient world were just as much bound up in an economic system as we are. The difference is that they don’t seem to have been much aware of that fact and don’t seem to have been too interested in finding out about it. The important question, and one which has steered the course of debate on this subject for nearly half a century, is the extent to which this lack of interest and awareness affected the way that the ancient economy actually worked.

Moses Finley (1912-1986) Cambridge historian and author of "The Ancient Economy" (1973)
Moses Finley (1912-1986) Cambridge historian and author of “The Ancient Economy” (1973)

I can’t think of many books in the field of ancient history that have had such a pervasive influence over a particular aspect of the subject as Moses Finley’s The Ancient Economy from 1973. In a nutshell Finley’s argument was that the way the ancient economy worked was fundamentally different to how it works since the emergence of modern capitalism. According to Finley trade in the ancient world was fairly minimal, there was little notion that capital could be invested with the prospect of increasing returns, cities functioned primarily not as producers but as consumers sucking in wealth from the countryside – and in the case of Rome from the entire Empire – like parasites, and as a result of all this there was no real economic growth.

The reason things worked so differently than they do now? Because all real wealth was concentrated, mainly in the form of land, in the hands of an elite. These elite looked down on any kind of work or business and who used their riches to indulge in conspicuous consumption, to act as benefactors to their civic communities and to buy up more land, as opposed to finding ways of intensifying the yield of the land they had. The evidence that Finley marshaled to make this case was, above all, literary – authors from Aristotle to Cicero sneering at traders and merchants and reinforcing this prejudice against economic activity. The fact that both Greek and Roman authors, who all came from the elite class, seemed to share this attitude led to a fairly static picture of the ancient economy, fundamentally unchanging from the time of Homer to the time of Constantine.

Over the last few decades most historians of the ancient economy have moved away from Finley’s model, though it’s a testament to his influence that it’s hard to find a book or article on the subject that doesn’t present its argument in opposition to his view. The general consensus now is that there was far more trade in the ancient world than Finley thought, that elite attitudes exerted less of a constraining force of economic activity and that even the elite used their wealth to engage in trade more often than the literary source suggest. Archaeological evidence for the movement of products around the ancient world has played a big role in moving away from Finley’s standpoint. In the new view the ancient economy might not have operated quite like ours but it was a lot more like it than Finley thought.

Amphora from a Roman ship wreck - archaeological evidence for investigating the ancient economy
Amphora from a Roman ship wreck – archaeological evidence for investigating the ancient economy

Now, I am certainly not an economic historian and I find myself largely convinced by the arguments of those who know far more about the subject than I do that ancient economy was less primitive and more modern than Finley believed. Still, I have to confess that I do find myself attracted to the key assumption that underlay Finley’s vision – the assumption that culture has the power to override economic forces.

It’s not the only historical argument to take that point of departure. The argument of Max Weber, the great German sociologist, that the it was the “protestant work ethic” that led to modern capitalism is famous and it’s probably no coincidence that Finley was greatly influenced by Weber and discusses him extensively in his own work. Weber’s vision too has come into criticism in recent decades – if Protestantism is needed to explain capitalism, how can we account for all those rich and successful Roman Catholic bankers of the Italian Renaissance? While it’s now clear that interpretations like Finley’s and Weber’s are far too simplistic I can’t help finding the alternative – the view that our destinies are driven purely by economics, and that culture and politics are just by-products of market forces – more than a little bit depressing.

We’re constantly having the message drilled into us that there’s little we can do to resist economic pressures – whether we’re talking about the extent to which governments pay heed to the demands of big business or the intrusion of commerce into higher education, which has resulted in one university that I know reducing the amount of study space in its central library to make way for an enlarged coffee bar (why would students go to the library if you don’t give them something fun to do there?).

Without passing judgment on policies of governments or universities it seems to me that it’s rather pessimistic to assume that we don’t have a choice when it comes to such issues because of the irresistible power of economic progress. I also wonder if economic historians in prioritzing the importance of the economy over culture and politics in looking at past societies aren’t also, probably not intentionally, doing their bit to reinforce the idea that people and communities are little more than tiny cogs in a machine over which they have no control. By telling us that things have always been this way they offer little hope that things might not have to be this way in the future.

That is probably why I’m not an economic historian. I’d rather think of myself as a citizen than a consumer and I’d rather think about the ways in which people’s lives were shaped through politics and culture than to examine how ancient society functioned as an economic system. I must stress that I’m not knocking the work of my colleagues who are economic historians. The questions they are asking are extremely important for helping us understand the past better. It’s just that by its very nature the approach they take and the methods they use – looking at the ancient world from the vantage point of modern economic understanding and using statistical analysis of data and the creation of models – doesn’t really concern itself with how people experienced life in the ancient world. Of course, economic concerns such as work, food, buying and selling were a fundamental part of day-to-day life in antiquity as they are today. But religion, politics, sport, and human interaction were the things that gave life meaning and that is what fascinates me.

I’m not so much interested in the Greeks and Romans were just like us as in the ways that they were very different. I’m fascinated by the public monuments of the cities of Roman Greece largely because I find it such a strange idea to imagine a city in which the hustle and bustle of daily life took place surrounded by statues, ancient and new, of men and gods, all competing for attention. Thinking about just how different life in ancient city was from life in a modern city illustrates the diversity of the human condition and can, I believe help us, to question the things about our own lives that we take for granted.

I’m not saying I would want to change place with a Roman farmer, soldier or even senator but realizing that their lives were very different from ours can help put our own way of life into perspective. It should also cause us to ask questions whenever anybody tells us that anything about our way of life – our political system, our moral values, the economy – has to be the way it is and is beyond our power to change.

Thinking about how little the ancient Greeks or Romans knew about the Roman economy does, however, also cause me to wonder whether most of us, if we are honest, really know as much more than they did as we like to think. It’s a cliché to say that economics is not an exact science but like most clichés it contains a great deal of truth. Leading economists do often take radically different views on issues of major importance. That doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they are doing, it is just an incredibly complex subject that even those who’ve devoted their lives to studying it only partially understand. So what hope is there for the rest of us?

How many of us really understands what happens when sums of billions of pounds are transferred between countries, why inflation is bad but so is deflation, what the knock-on effects for the rest of the world would be if Greece did default on its debts and leave the Euro, or what banking terms like junk bonds, collateralized debt obligations, deleveraging or naked short-selling mean. I took A-level economics and passed with an A grade (admittedly some time ago) and I’m happy to hold my hands up and say that I’m baffled by most of these issues. And on that note I’d like to finish with a proposal.

In view of the importance given to the economy in our society – the attention paid to economic issues in the news and the extent to which economic policies determine our political decisions – isn’t it an absolutely crazy situation that most of us know so little about the subject? My suggestion, therefore, is that economics should become a compulsory school subject. I haven’t gone so far as deciding for how long or at what level but even a couple of years of basic economic theory would be enormously beneficial. Then when the next generation cross their ballot papers at a general election their decisions about which party’s economic policy is best, and indeed the weight which they give to economic policies over other concerns, would at least be based on slightly better informed opinions than they are now.

Too much scholarship?

Like most people working in Ancient History, Classics or Classical Archaeology I subscribe to a free internet journal that publishes reviews of academic books to do with Greek and Roman culture, the BMCR (Bryn Mawr Classical Review). The journal sends regular emails with reviews and once a month a list of the new books received from publishers and available for review. The list is always a sobering reminder of just how much research is currently being carried out in the field and of the sheer impossibility of staying up to date with it all. This month there were 102 new titles on the list. (I counted them for the purpose of writing this blog – I don’t usually, don’t worry). If we take this number to be fairly typical, which it is, that means there are well over a thousand new books in the field each year. If you bear in mind that in addition to these monographs, conference proceedings and other collections of articles there are countless academic journals dedicated to Classical studies it is probably no exaggeration to say that there is more scholarship published in a single year than anyone could read and digest properly in a whole academic career.

Now of course, this situation is in many ways a good thing. It shows that interest in the ancient world is booming and much of this research is exciting and cutting edge and is leading to new and important insights into Greek and Roman culture and society. It also shows that large numbers of people are managing to have successful careers carrying out research into the ancient world. There also isn’t, of course, any need to read absolutely everything. The books on offer this month range from Roman wall painting to the reception of antiquity in 15th century Bohemia, from religion at the time of the Peloponnesian War to Roman girlhood. It’s enough to read those works that in some way or other directly connect to one’s own research interests. And reviews are, of course, a good way of staying abreast of recent trends and deciding which books might be worth at least a browse, which is the whole point of journals like the BMCR. Still, the sheer wealth of scholarship out there can seem overwhelming – particularly, when you realize that it has been growing exponentially for the last few decades – and I can’t help wondering if this explosion of scholarship on the ancient world for all its plus-points doesn’t also have a downside.

Borges' "Library of Babel" as visualised by Erik Desmazieres
Borges’ “Library of Babel” as visualised by Erik Desmazieres

As the forest of modern scholarship becomes increasingly overgrown is there not a chance of our becoming lost in it and losing sight of what we originally went there for? To extend the metaphor, there are certainly days now when writing about my research can feel like hacking away at thick undergrowth with a blunt machete. Days when every ancient source I want to cite, every monument I want to discuss, turns out to have been considered in some connection by somebody who’s trod that path before. Days when my life in academia feels like being lost in Jorge Louis Borges’ Library of Babel, an infinite series of rooms extending forever in ever direction and filled with books containing every possible combination of words and letters that ever have been or ever could be written.

Don’t get me wrong, reading past scholarship is rarely a chore. Some articles can be heavy going but for the most part I greatly enjoy reading about the ancient world. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this work. I daily discover wonderful new articles that display impressive depths of erudition and insight and which teach me something new. There is, however, a part of me that curses inwardly when I discover yet another article on Kimon’s repatriation of the bones of Theseus from Skyros that I really have to read so that I can refer to it in footnote 37 of the paper I’m working on or a discussion of the theme of drunkenness in Plutarch’s lives which I know will have bearing on my interpretation of a particular passage in his biography of Alexander. And now that the vast majority of academic journals and large numbers of books have been digitized and are fully searchable online there is absolutely no excuse for missing any potentially relevant references. But lest this seem like nothing more than laziness on my part there are I believe serious drawbacks to having to deal with so much secondary literature.

In the first place, all this scholarship clamours for our attention and takes up time that might otherwise be spent engaging directly with our primary sources, be they surviving literary works from the ancient world, inscriptions or archaeological remains. Of course, Classical scholars, still have to be deeply familiar with this primary evidence but the fact that we now have to read so much about what other people have thought about it can get in the way of approaching it with an open mind and arriving at new ways of seeing things. “Knowing” too much about a given subject can be constricting. Furthermore, time spent reading what someone else has written about Pausanias’ description of Argos or about the Philopappos Monument at Athens is time that could otherwise have been spent re-reading Pausanias or looking at the monument itself.

Secondly, the sheer volume of past scholarship, means that it is becoming increasingly difficult within the confines of an academic article or book chapter to really do justice to what has already been written on a particular subject. I constantly find myself struggling to find a good balance in how much attention I give to previous publications – ranging from a mere mention to detailed and critical discussion. Of course, too much attention to the work of others can lead to one’s own work becoming rather unwieldy, full of meanderings down side paths instead of driving forward with a clear and concise argument. On the other hand there’s something particularly unsatisfying about including superficial references to past scholarship, which do little to actually add to one’s own argument. I can’t help feeling just a slight twinge of annoyance when I see some obligatory reference to a key monograph in the footnote of someone else which, regardless of whether they have actually read the work or not, could have been made purely having read the blurb on the back of the book. But, here I’ll hold my hands up and admit I’m as guilty of including such references as the next person. The expectations of scholarship are such that it’s surely impossible not to.

A particular pet hate of mine – and something that I do at least try my best to avoid doing myself – is when I find scholars ascribing far more certainty to the arguments of their predecessors than is actually warranted in order to bolster up their own arguments. Often I see sentences like “As X has demonstrated….” or footnotes of the “See X” type to support pretty sweeping claims. If you happen to be familiar with said article by X, or actually bother to consult it, then you often find that X’s actual arguments were presented rather cautiously or were perhaps made merely as suggestions and, as such, don’t quite do what the person citing them has implied that they do.

Here I’m reminded in particular of an excellent short article by Benjamin Millis in the journal Hesperia in which he considers the actual evidence for the so-called “miserable huts” which had supposedly been discovered at Corinth and which were taken to be have been places where impoverished Corinthians lived following the city’s destruction by the Romans in 146 BC.* Through quite shrewd detective work Millis demonstrates (and here I do mean demonstrates) that even though these “miserable huts” had been referred to repeatedly in modern scholarship there is actually no concrete evidence for their existence whatsoever. They had been mentioned once decades ago in an unpublished lecture by a Corinthian scholar, had crept into some publication or other, which then became cited by multiple scholars who also in turn all cited each other. What seemed to be a solid edifice of proof thus, on closer inspection, vanished like a puff of smoke. This is an extreme example but one that well illustrates how if we aren’t careful “facts” about the ancient world can easily creep into modern scholarship, take root through constant repetition and require considerable energy and time to be weeded out. Perhaps I’m just a naturally suspicious person but this means that I tend to spend a lot of time chasing up references in other people’s footnotes so that each article I read leads to a handful of others that I feel I have to read ad infinitum – or at least that’s how it sometimes feels.

Having got all of this off my chest I must now come clean and concede that for all these frustrations I’m all too aware that I could not have actually have carried out my current research if I’d been working fifty years ago. It is true what they say about standing on the shoulders of giants and my own research, of course, my work builds upon what has been done before. I couldn’t have carried out my research in to the public monuments of Roman Greece if I’d lived at a time when historians assumed, as they largely did in the early twentieth century, that our best way of understanding the ancient world was through literary sources and that archaeology was merely a way of filling in background detail and providing illustrations for text books. I wouldn’t have been researching Roman Greece at all if my recent predecessors hadn’t realized and demonstrated how exciting and vibrant Greek culture continued to be even after the country had been conquered by a foreign empire. I do however wonder where the scholarship of the ancient world is headed and whether it can continue to grow exponentially into the foreseeable future. Can we really go on producing over a thousand new books on the ancient world for hundreds of years to come? And if we do, can that really continue to advance our understanding of the ancient world indefinitely? Or will we reach a limit at which all we’re doing is rehashing old ideas and thrashing out debates about points of increasingly miniscule detail with colleagues past and present? Perhaps above all I wonder if at some point late in this century, some young scholar will be cursing as her plans to meet some self-imposed writing deadline are thwarted by the discovery of some hitherto overlooked article by a certain C.P. Dickenson that she now has to trawl through. I certainly do hope so.   * Millis, B.W. 2006. ““Miserable Huts” in Post-146 B.C. Corinth.” Hesperia 75 (3):397-404.

Buried in the heart of the city – tombs, benefactors and heroes in Roman Greece

One of the most impressive Roman period monuments still to be seen in modern day Athens is the so-called Philopappos monument. This two-storey structure of Pentelic marble – the same local stone that was used to build the Parthenon – was constructed in the early 2nd century AD as a tomb for an eastern prince who had made his home in the city. Gaius Julius Antiochos Epiphanes Philopappos, to give him his full name, is the last known descendent of a dynasty that had ruled the small Hellenistic kingdom of Commagene in what is now southeast Turkey, before it was absorbed into the Roman Empire in the early 1st century AD.

The Philopappos Monument - Athens
The Philopappos Monument – Athens

Philoppappos was a member of the upper strata of the Empire’s elite – he rubbed shoulders with the emperors Trajan and Hadrian and even served as consul at Rome. After he settled in Athens he occupied important local magistracies and served as a benefactor to the city. He was also an acquaintance of the great biographer Plutarch, who addressed one of his moralising essays to him. When he died he was granted the honour of a grand public burial on the so-called Mouseion Hill within the city walls, a prominent spot that can be seen from the Acropolis and much of the surrounding area. Today the hill is better known as Philopappou after the man and his monument.

The monument itself, though only partially preserved, is of great interest because enough of the sculptural decoration survives to be able to think about how Philoppappos – or whoever was responsible for the tomb’s design – mixed different elements to project an identity that was at once Greek and Roman, kingly and civic. Perhaps I’ll talk more about the monument itself in a later piece. Here, however, I want to think about this monument as part of a broader phenomenon. There’s quite some evidence that Philopappos was not the only member of the super-elite of the Greeks-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire to be granted a public tomb at this time.

Anybody who has visited Ephesos in Turkey, or simply seen photos of the site, will be familiar with the now iconic Library of Celsus. Paid for by a Roman Senator of the same generation of Philopappos, the library also served as Celsus’ tomb. Other public burials from around the same time are also attested at Ephesos, which was the capital of the Roman province of Asia (roughly the western part of modern day Turkey) and at several other cities in Asia Minor including Miletos, Aphrodisias and Sagalassos.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesos
The Library of Celsus at Ephesos

In Achaia, the province on which my research focuses (roughly equivalent to southern and central modern day Greece) there is evidence for members of the elite being buried in public spaces at the cities of Messene, Argos, Eretria, Mantinea and Athens. In Athens in addition to the tomb of Philopappos, one of the richest and most prolific of all benefactors, Herodes Atticus, was buried in the stadium that he had bestowed upon the city – the stadium was rebuilt to host the first modern Olympics in 1896 and can still be seen at Athens. His other benefactions included a fountain-house at Olympia, an odeion (small theatre) at Corinth, a major renovation of the stadium at Delphi and the odeion at Athens, which still stands in the city and is used for performances in the annual Athens Festival. Herodes is a fascinating character and I’m sure that I’ll have reason enough to return to him in this blog. Although the stadium where he was interred lay some distance outside the centre of Roman Athens, it was nonetheless a very prominent public space. We also know from a literary source that his daughter was actually buried somewhere in the city centre.

In Greek culture it had always been highly unusual for individuals to be buried in the city centre. There doesn’t usually seem to have been any explicit legal prohibition of intra-urban burial as there was at Rome but for reasons of religion – and no doubt public health as well – the dead were usually buried in cemetery areas just outside the city walls. Exceptions had been made in Archaic through to Hellenistic times for particularly powerful individuals – city founders in new colonies or great generals – but before the Greek world became part of the Roman Empire such intra-urban burials were extremely rare – so rare that the handful of examples I’ve just mentioned as being clustered in the first and second centuries AD represent a marked increase in the practice.

In my last few posts I’ve talked about the ways in which Greek cities in Roman times began to invent tomb monuments, which they claimed belonged to illustrious figures from the historical or – what we would call – the mythological past. Claiming possession of the physical remains of such heroes was a way for cities to compete with one another for prestige and status and for recognition from emperors, such as Hadrian, for whom Classical Greek culture held a deep fascination. I’m exploring this phenomenon in the first part of an article I’m working on. In the second part of the article – which I’ve so far written far less of and hope to finish this week – I am going to consider how these two phenomena – “invented” ancient burials and new burials for the super-elite – might be connected.

There are inscriptions from cities in Asia Minor from this period that describe burial in a public space as the greatest honour that a polis (city) was able to bestow upon its benefactors. In these texts the individuals offered such graves – or their relatives if they were already dead – tended to accept the reward only under protest, presumably because it could be dangerous to seem to have too much status or influence, living under a political system ruled over by an all powerful emperor. But accept they did.

A public tomb was at once both a forceful statement about the wealth, power and status of the deceased and an expression of gratitude on the part of the city for whatever acts of munificence the individual had bestowed upon the community. Public graves were ostentatious and designed to be conspicuous amid the hustle and bustle of daily life. They stood in much frequented civic spaces such as agoras, gymnasia or stadiums. They represent the logical extension of an intricate system of lesser honours which the polis had for centuries – at least since the early Hellenistic period – been bestowing on its wealthy citizens in return for benefactions. Rich elites gave food, festivals and political service and in return received titles, front row seats at festivals, bronze statues. This exchange of gifts and honours was the glue that held the society of these cities together.

The fact that under the Empire Greek cities now began burying their most important benefactors in public tombs in their city centres is a striking phenomenon, which in itself deserves more attention than it has been given in scholarship up to now. One of the things that particularly fascinates me, however, is that this practice was on the increase at precisely the same time that cities seem to have been inventing “ancient” heroic tomb monuments. I don’t believe that can be coincidence.

Last time I discussed the case of Argos, which reading between the lines of Pausanias’ 2nd century AD description, seems to have invented more ancient tomb monuments than any other polis, probably as a way of overcompensating for its relative political insignificance. No archaeological remains of any of the 29 attested grave monuments have been found. Excavations at Argos have, however, discovered three different contemporary Roman period burials – two in the bathhouse and one on the agora, the very area where many of the heroic burials were apparently clustered.

We don’t know much about what the agora tomb itself looked like because not much of the superstructure has been discovered but a human skeleton* was found together with some glass containers, some 120 sheets of gold leaf and a coin in the jaws. If the prominent public location weren’t enough the gold confirms that this was an elite individual. The monument was dated to the mid 2nd Century, so around the time of Pausanias’ visit. So this individual had been laid to rest in the very area where the Titan Prometheus, the hero Danaos and the head of Medusa the Gorgon were believed to be buried. Did any of these mythological connotations rub off on this new tomb?

My project is all about thinking about the way that spatial context contributed to the meaning and perception of public monuments in the Roman period Greek city. If we recognise that these new elite burials were being constructed in the very spaces where great heroes of the distant past were believed to be buried then it looks rather likely that the two types of monuments would have drawn upon each other for meaning. The implication is surely that, by being buried among their most illustrious ancestors the super-benefactors who received this honour were, in some sense thought of in some sense as the equals of these illustrious figures.

Honorific inscriptions in Roman times sometimes do talk of benefactors in heroic terms. Modern scholars have tended to dismiss this as inflated rhetoric and to deny the possibility that these men and women were really thought of as in some way heroic – heroes in Greek thought were semi-divine figures and typically the focus of religious cult. While even the grandest of Roman benefactors probably weren’t thought of as possessing godlike powers I see no reason to doubt that they were at least thought of as closer in nature to the heroes of the past than their fellow mortals.

Elsewhere in Greece there is evidence for certain members of the elite trying to forge specific connections with older tombs believed to belong to their own ancestors. Plutarch, for instance, in his life of Aratos (a great general of the 3rd Century BC) emphasises the prominence of his tomb at Sikyon and the festival that still took place there. The fact that he also dedicates that work to a local family who claimed descent from Sikyon surely hints at the way that these members of the local elite drew prestige from the monument.

Even more striking is the example of the tomb of a man called Podares on the agora of the city of Mantinea. Pausanias describes how this tomb had originally been built for a local general who had died defending the city in the 4th century BC but had been taken over in recent times by one of his descendants who had achieved the Roman citizenship – a sure mark of elite statues in Roman Greece. Remarkably, the late 19th century excavations actually discovered this tomb, identified by roof-tiles marked with an abbreviated form of Podares’ name. Inside they found three tombs. The bodies were missing, probably decayed but the grave goods included writing implements, signs of an educated elite lifestyle, and a gold-leaf crown of the sort cities often bestowed upon benefactors.

The theatre at Mantinea
The theatre at Mantinea

This Podares then, and his family, otherwise unknown to us, were clearly important people in Roman Mantinea. Their family tomb monument at the heart of the community advertised their status and did so by explicitly making a connection to the distant historical past. Because the excavations were carried out so long ago there the reports are less complete than we might like but at least one recent scholar has remarked that there is actually little in those reports to confirm that this really was a late Classical monument.** In other words, there is a possibility that Podares’ claim to a distinguished family history and the antiquity of his tomb might have been nothing more than a useful piece of fiction.

There is fairly widespread evidence for members of the Roman period Greek elite claiming descent from famous individuals of the distant past such as Miltiades (the hero of the Battle of Marathon), Perikles (the leading Athenian statesman of the 5th Century BC) and Polybius (the great 2nd C BC historian). I wonder whether members of local elites wishing to advertise particular family connections might not have been a driving influence behind the invention of many of the supposedly ancient tomb monuments in Roman Greece. At the very least, it would have suited the elite class who might hope to see themselves rewarded a public burial to cultivate stories about ancient heroes having tombs within the public spaces of their cities.

To come full circle and to finish with the tomb with which we began it is worth considering what Pausanias has to say about the tomb of Philoppappos at Athens:

“This is a hill right opposite the Acropolis within the old city boundaries, where legend says Musaios used to sing, and, dying of old age, was buried. Afterwards a monument also was erected here to a Syrian.” (Pausanias 1.25.8)

The very fact that Pausanias mentions the two burials in one breath hints at the ways that physical relationships between monuments new and old were important to defining their meaning for the Roman period Greeks. Musaios was a mythical local poet – his name itself is derived from Muse, the name for the Greek female personifications of the arts with whom he was believed to have associated. The 2nd Century AD was a time when advertising their possession of Greek culture, or paideia –including knowledge of history, mythology and rhetoric – became increasingly important for elite self-representation. Could there have been a more appropriate hero for a sophisticated member of the imperial super-elite-  particularly one who came from the fringes of the Greek world, as Pausanias’ (perhaps somewhat condescending and geographically wrong) reference to a “Syrian” reminds us – to wish to associate himself with?

It cannot have been a coincidence that Philopappos, or his family, chose the very spot where Musaios was believed to have been buried to set up his tomb. It is not hard to imagine that they might even have breathed new life into this old myth in order to advertise the significance of the new monument. Surely the point that was being made is that Philopappos was, in some sense, to be thought of as a new Musaios – a man who surpassed his fellow citizens in greatness and who was, if not exactly a hero, at least closer to the heroes than most mere mortals were. And that I believe was the point of most of the new public tomb monuments of Roman Greece, something that can only be fully appreciated by thinking about these monuments, as the Greeks would have experienced them, in their spatial context together with the tombs of supposedly ancient heroes.

* The reports of the excavation in the late 1970s, frustratingly say nothing about how much of the skeleton survived or whether it was thought to be male or female but merely mention that the coin was found in the mouth.

** Nino Luraghi (2008b). “Meeting Messenians in Pausanias’ Greece” in Le Péloponnèse D’Épaminondas À Hadrien – Colloque de Tours 6-7 Octobre 2005. C Grandjean, (ed). De Boccard Paris. 191-202.

Roman Argos – heroic tombs and an identity crisis

“The Greeks who dispute most the Athenian claim to antiquity and the gifts they say they have received from the gods are the Argives” (Pausanias 1.14.2 – mid 2nd Century AD)

Reconstruction Model of the Agora of Argos (2nd C AD) - Argos Museum
Reconstruction Model of the Agora of Argos (2nd C AD) – Argos Museum

The city of Argos in Roman times is a fascinating and perplexing place. The city had been the setting for some of the most famous of all Greek myths. It was the birthplace of Perseus, the hero who beheaded the gorgon Medusa, the place from which the so-called Seven Against Thebes set out to conquer that city, the city of Agamemnon, the king who had led the Greeks against the Trojans, to bring back his brother Menelaos’ errant wife Helen. In the Archaic period – the formative centuries of Greek culture from say the 8th to the 6th centuries BC, when these myths were taking on their canonical form – Argos was indeed one of the most important poleis (cities) of Greece. By the height of the Roman Empire, however, that was all far in the past. Argos hadn’t been a major player on the political stage since the 5th Century BC, when it had been eclipsed by Athens and Sparta.

When Pausanias visited Argos in the 2nd Century AD it seems from his description that the city was undergoing something of an identity crisis. In my last two blog pieces I’ve talked about the subject that I’m exploring in an article I’m currently working on – the invention of supposedly ancient tomb monuments in cities throughout Greece in the period of Roman rule. It’s well known that the culture of Greek cities under the Empire became rather backward looking – old cults were revived, aged monuments were restored and local elites placed increasing emphasis on their (claimed) descent from great historical figures. These were all ways for cities to compete for prestige and status. With Roman emperors like Hadrian and his successors deeply enamoured of Greek culture, advertising Greekness in these ways could lead to real concrete benefits: tax concessions, the right to host important festivals, benefactions by the emperor himself. One of the key arguments I’m making in my article is that against this background the invention of ancient tomb monuments was far more widespread than has been recognized up to now. Any self-respecting Greek city of the 2nd Century AD could show visitors tomb monuments in its central public places that were supposed to belong to illustrious figures from the mythical or distant historical past. I’ve already given some of my reasons for thinking that a lot of these tombs must have been invented, not least because we know of so many instances where multiple cities made claims to be the resting place of the same hero. I also believe that the habit of making up such monuments reached its peak under the Roman Empire. At the end of my last piece I said that this time I would consider the question of how such monuments might have come to be invented and Argos is an excellent place to consider that question.

Pausanias, who provides our best evidence for the monuments that could be seen in Roman Greek cities mentions no less than 29 tombs of mythical or legendary individuals within the built up centre of Argos. Argos claimed to possess the graves of, among others, Prometheus, the titan who had stolen fire from the gods to give to mankind, Deianeira, the second wife of Herakles, Ariadne, the princess who Theseus had rescued from the Minotaur and Helenos, one of the sons of king Priam of Troy. Most of these burials were in or around the agora, the main civic square of the city. The head of the gorgon Medusa was also supposed to be buried somewhere on that square and Danaos, the founder of the city had his tomb there, which is mentioned by Strabo as well as Pausanias. The incredibly high number of heroic tombs at Argos– just over a fifth of the total for all of the cities of Greece together in fact – is already enough to cause alarms bells to start ringing that some of them might not all have been what they were purported to be. Fascinatingly Pausanias also provides direct evidence that many of the claims made of these tombs must have been made up.

At Argos, far more than for any other city he visited, Pausanias took a sceptical attitude toward the stories his guides told him. His description of Argos is peppered with phrases that hint at disbelief such as “they believe [such and such]”, “if [such and such a story] really is true” and even at one point “even the Argive guides have noticed something wrong with their story, though they still tell it”. I’ve counted no less than thirteen such references in his discussion of the city. Whenever another city made a claim to possession of the same tomb as the Argives – as was the case for the tombs of Prometheus, Deineira, Helenos and another hero called Hyrnetho – Pausanias favoured the claim of the other city. Pausanias even managed to disagree with what the Argives told him about a monument commemorating the death of the Hellenistic king Pyrrhos in the city (yes the one who gave us the phrase “pyrrhic victory” after the tremendous losses he’d accrued in winning his earlier military encounters with Rome). Pausanias couldn’t get away from the fact that Pyrrhos had been killed at Argos while attacking the city (a local woman had thrown a tile from a roof at his head) because it was too well known. He could, however, and did disagree with the Argives about where exactly in the city the great general had been cremated and then buried.

Perhaps the reason he was so suspicious of what he was told at Argos is that he had first-hand knowledge that at least some of the stories the Argives told about their monuments and history were made-up. He describes how the tomb of Ariadne had come to be identified when a temple of “Cretan Dionysos” in the city was been rebuilt and the workmen had discovered an earthenware coffin. In the most well-known version of the myth, after rescuing Ariadne from the Minotuar, the Athenian hero Theseus, in a bizarre fit of absent mindedness, had left her behind on an island where she was rescued by Dionysos and became his wife. A temple to the god of wine and extatic abandon was therefore an appropriate location for her grave. Pausanias tells us that an Argive man called Lykeas was responsible for making the identification. Now, all we know about this man, is what can be gleaned from a few mentions of him in Pausanias’ work but he was clearly a local poet, and apparently an expert on local folklore and history. There is some reason, based on the word Pausanias uses to describe him, to think that he was a guide of the sort that Pausanias himself describes speaking to elsewhere. He may therefore have still been alive when Pausanias visited the city which would mean that this grave at least had been “invented’ fairly recently.

We can imagine the scene. No doubt, some ancient skeletal remains had been discovered in trenches being dug for the reconstruction work. A crowd had probably gathered to marvel at the wonder just as people flock to archaeological sites in city centres today. A discussion must have arisen about just whose grave this was when Lykeas, that renowned local authority on Argive myth and legend, appeared and declared that this was the grave of no less a figure than Ariadne herself. A gasp of awe, a murmur of approval and a new local tradition was established. We can’t know who was actually buried at the site – it has not yet been discovered by archaeologists – but the truth is, neither could Lykeas or the Roman period Argives. In all probability it belonged to someone from a much more recent historical period than the distant bronze age/dark ages when whatever seeds of truth there are to the Greek myths had been sown. It may well have belonged to some local individual whose name had already become forgotten by Roman times. But, then as now, it was far more satisfying to identify tombs of the ancient dead as belonging to the famous and powerful, rather than to entertain the possibility that they might have to remain anonymous. We need only think of the recent excitement at the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in a Leicester car park or the desire to link the tomb recently excavated at Amphipolis with Alexander the Great.

So, I’m not claiming that the Greeks of the Roman period actually went to the trouble of building new monuments and pretending that they were ancient tombs. They didn’t need to. It was far easier to attach stories to existing monuments, whose original meaning had become lost in the mists of time.

Also at Argos Pausanias gives two examples of pairs of tombs of heroes having the same name being buried next to each other – two women called Hypermnestra and two men called Linos. Now it seems highly unlikely to me that the Argives of earlier times really would have buried people together simply because they had the same name. A rather more plausible scenario is that in the course of time people had forgotten exactly which Hypermnestra or Linos was buried at a given spot and to satisfy rival interpretations a compromise was reached in which it was decided that actually they were both buried there, with some nearby monument, conveniently old and obscure, being reinterpreted as one of the tombs. At the city of Megara Pausanias tells us about three different heroes buried beneath political buildings. We can almost hear the Roman period Megarians saying to themselves “Didn’t so-and-so, our great hero, have a tomb somewhere in our city centre?” “He must have. Our ancestors wouldn’t have deprived him of such an honour! But where…….?” “That council house is very old, I expect they buried him under that!”. On Salamis Pausanias reported a “sacred secret” that the hero Aiakos was buried underneath an altar at which he was worshipped. You have to wonder if this was such a secret why it was being told to visiting tourists. I suspect that the altar was probably a genuinely ancient monument and that at a suggestion made at some point that Aiakos was probably buried underneath had come to be accepted as fact. After all, who was going to dismantle a deeply sacred monument to find out if he really was?

There are, of course, countless parallels of stories becoming attached to places and monuments in this way throughout history. (If you have any personal favourites I would be very glad to hear them so please do post a comment below). The one that springs instantly to my mind, however, is modern day Athens where at least two separate locations have been identified as “the Prison of Sokrates”, neither of them on much more than fairly flimsy evidence and a large dose of wishful thinking.

But to return to Argos – where did all this fabrication of monuments and invention of local legends get the city? Well, although Pausanias tells us the city was deliberately competing with Athens (see the quote with which I began), we can be sure that Argos didn’t really come close to achieving the same level of status and prestige as that city. In the 2nd Century AD Athens was thought of throughout the Mediterannean as the capital of Greek culture and was an important centre of learning (philosophy and rhetoric) and artistic production. Argos, however, certainly did not miss out on the renewed economic prosperity enjoyed by much of the Empire in the mid-second century or on the favour of the Philhellene emperors.

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

Archaeological knowledge of the site is rather fragmentary (perhaps a subject for another blog) but there was quite a bit of construction work at the time – as there was throughout the Greek east. Many of the older buildings on the agora were spruced up, the city received a colossal bathhouse, impressive remains of which still stand, and Hadrian paid for the construction of an aqueduct to improve the city’s water supply. Pausanias might not have been too impressed with the stories the Argives told about their monuments but the ruler of the Empire was perhaps more of a soft touch when it came to their assertions of mythological greatness.

Not one of the twenty nine tombs mentioned by Pausanias has as yet been discovered at the site, unless the so-called Hypostyle Hall (a 5th C BC council-house type building on the Agora) really was the so-called Palinthos where Danaos was buried, as has been rather tentatively suggested. Intriguingly, however, excavations have revealed several tombs of members of the local-elite in the very same spaces where these heroic burials were supposed to have stood, dating to the Roman period. In my next piece – and for now my last piece on tomb monuments – I’ll consider how such new, Roman period public burials and supposedly ancient graves might have been connected and have might drawn on each other for meaning.

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.

Inventing ancient tomb monuments in Roman Greece

Up to now this blog has been circling around what my “Monuments of Roman Greece” research project is actually about. The issues I’ve talked about – the changing meaning of public monuments and how we use different kinds of evidence to get at that meaning – are of central importance to my research. However, here I’ve talked a lot about fairly recent historical monuments instead of Roman ones, paid a lot of attention to buildings when the project is more concerned with smaller monuments such as statues, and have said a lot about Athens when Athens is only one of the cities I’m investigating. In this and the next few pieces I’m going to get to the heart of what my research is actually about by talking about an article I’ve been working on.

In my first two and a half months in Oxford when I haven’t been writing blogs about 18th century buildings, following a German course and acclimatising to being back in the UK after a fifteen year absence, I’ve been writing the first draft of an article about public tomb monuments in Roman Greece. The idea is to explore in parallel two phenomena, which I believe need to be interpreted in light of one another, neither of which, in my opinion, has received enough attention by historians or archaeologists.

The first is an increase in public burials for important benefactors and politicians in Greek cities in imperial times. For hundreds of years the cities of the Greek world had found various ways of rewarding people who provided important services for the community – statues, titles, front row seats at festivals – but it’s only under the Empire that it became at all common for benefactors to be buried in monumental tombs in public spaces such as the marketplace, gymnasium or stadium. We’re still only talking about evidence for a handful of such monuments – this was a great honour indeed and reserved for the pinnacle of the Greek elite – but this handful is still a marked contrast with how rare public burials were in earlier periods. This is, I believe, one of the most striking ways in which Roman period Greek cities looked different from our modern towns. Just imagine for a second how strange it would seem to see tombs of politicians and celebrities in our supermarkets, cinemas and leisure centres. I’ll talk more about these new Roman period burials in a later blog.

Here I want to focus on the other phenomenon I’ve been exploring and the one that I’ve so far written most about – probably too much considering I’ve already exceeded my self-imposed word limit – the invention in Roman times of monuments that were claimed to be the burials of illustrious figures from mythology or the distant historical past.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence from Roman period literary sources that in cities all over Greece, at the height of the Roman Empire, it was possible to see such heroic tomb monuments. Like the new graves of benefactors these monuments were typically found within the city in public spaces where the inhabitants went about their day-to-day business. A lot of this evidence comes from Pausanias, an author we’ve encountered before (if you’ve just tuned in Pausanias was a Greek from Asia Minor who’s left us a description of Greece in the 2nd Century AD). There are, however, other authors, such as Plutarch (he lived slightly earlier in the 1st Century AD and is most famous for his biographies), who also mention such tombs.

Most of the names of those believed to be buried in these tombs are now so obscure that even few Classicists can have heard of them. Some are known only because of the references that mention them in connection with the tombs; they must, however, have had great significance, at least at the local level, at the time. Others are still famous today – Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give to mankind, had his grave on the agora of Argos. (Argos incidentally takes the record for having the most graves of figures belonging to the distant mythical past in its civic centre – Pausanias mentions no less than thirty!) Leonidas, the Spartan general who died defending the Thermopylae pass in the Persian War (popularised as a comic-book-style epic in the film 300) had a tomb in the centre of Sparta. Pausanias tells us that the Spartans retrieved his bones from Thermopylae some forty years after the battle. Hector, the greatest warrior on the Trojan side in the Trojan War supposedly had his grave at Thebes. The Thebans had reputedly brought the bones over from Troy in accordance with an oracle.

I’ve already said that I’m interested in is what I term “invented tomb” monuments so it probably won’t come as too much of a surprise to hear that I believe that a large number of these monuments weren’t quite what they were claimed to be. For a start there is the obvious problem of whether figures like Prometheus or Hector had any basis in historical reality at all. If they did then this must be looked for some time in the pre-Archaic period of Greek history (let’s say before 700 BC), before these myths were first written down. Now, there is some archaeological evidence for heroic burials at this time but not very much – not enough to account for anything like the number of such tombs mentioned in the Roman period authors. A bigger problem for accepting the claims made of these tombs, however, is that there is actually concrete evidence that some of them must have been made up at some point.

The sources give evidence for several instances where multiple cities made claims to having the remains of the same hero. Seeing that it is clearly impossible for individuals to be buried in more than one place, in such cases at least one – possibly both – of these claims must have been fictitious. For instance, a city called Opos, far less well known and less significant than Argos, also claimed to be the final resting place of Prometheus. Pausanias tells us he was more convinced by the claim of the people of that town. He also tells us that both Sparta and a polis called Aegion claimed to be the burial place of a hero called Talthybios. Both Athens and Troizen had graves of the mythical hero Hippolytos. There were also graves of Themistokles, the Athenian Persian war hero (Yes, he of 300, Rise of an Empire fame) at both Piraeus, the Athenian harbour town and Magnesia in Asia Minor where he had died in exile. I’m going to say more about Themistokles’ tomb in a future blog. There are several other examples of such contested claims in the sources.

In addition, some of the details that the sources give us about certain tombs sound just too good to be true. For instance, there is a story preserved in the work of Plutarch about a messenger in the Persian war being buried at Plataea, the site of a decisive battle in that war, after he collapsed and died after running all the way to Delphi and back to bring back sacred fire for the founding of a cult. The story just sounds far too much like the much more well-known story, which you’ve probably heard, about the Athenian messenger who collapsed and died after running all the way to Athens to report the victory at the Battle of Marathon (the original Marathon run). That story, though set in the fifth century and fairly widely accepted as true even among ancient historians, is itself, incidentally, also only mentioned in Roman period sources written over five centuries later.

Many of what I believe to be invented tomb monuments have also been accepted in modern scholarship. That’s not so much because they’ve been given a lot of attention. They haven’t. Rather, the references in Pausanias and other Roman period authors have been drawn upon by scholars who are mainly interested in much earlier periods of Greek history, mainly the Classical period – c.500-323 BC, the period of Athenian democracy, the great tragedians and philosophers. The Roman period references to early tombs seem to provide extra snippets of information that aren’t provided by contemporary sources.

We need to keep in mind, however, that the time that separated an author like Pausanias from the Persian Wars was over 600 years, or nearly the same amount of time that separates us from the Black Death or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Many of the ancient tomb monuments reported in Roman sources were supposed to be even older than that. I believe that we need to be far more sceptical in accepting that these late sources provide reliable evidence for Classical, or pre-Classical history. I also believe that it is far more interesting to think about these references in the context of the time in which they are written. It’s only when we look at the Roman period references to heroic tombs all together that it becomes clear that making up stories about tomb monuments was a widespread phenomenon and one that deserves historical attention.

So far, in writing my article, arguing the case that the invention of tomb monuments was widespread in Roman Greece has taken up quite a large chunk of my allotted words, just as it’s run into yet another fairly lengthy blog piece. (I keep promising myself to try to post shorter pieces!). However, what I’ve been finding most fascinating is trying to find answers to the questions that arise from this argument:

When exactly were the stories that Pausanias and others tell about these grave monuments made up? If these monuments weren’t authentic ancient graves then what were they? How did the names of figures of myth and legend come to be attached to them? Why were such invented tomb monuments so common? And who gained most by inventing them?

These are some of the issues I’ll be discussing in my next couple of pieces.

How to read (or over-read) an ancient monument

If you’ve read either of my last couple of pieces then you’ll know that just before I arrive at my place of work in Oxford each morning I pass by a building that copies aspects of the Hellenistic Tower of the Winds in Athens, the 18th Century Radcliffe observatory. A couple of minutes before that I pass by another monument, far less imposing, which also makes a reference to the ancient world. It’s a fountain in the form of the merman Triton, the son of the sea god Poseidon. With bulging muscles he holds a shell above his head and is blowing a jet of water through a hole in the bottom. It stands in front of the old Radcliffe infirmary which now houses The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH for short), which I’m technically a part of though I’ve only been in the building once so far.

The Triton Fountain outside the Radcliffe Infirmary
The Triton Fountain outside the Radcliffe Infirmary

I didn’t really pay the fountain too much attention in my first few weeks of being here. I usually get a ridiculously early bus into Oxford to avoid the journey time being doubled by the rush hour traffic and by the time I arrive at work the only thing on my mind is coffee. But I’ve now discovered that the fountain is actually very interesting for thinking about the way that different layers of meaning can be packed, concertina-like into the history of a single monument.

The 19th century Radcliffe Triton - now in storage
The 19th century Radcliffe Triton – now in storage

It turns out that the current statue was set up very recently in 2012, a copy of a mid 19th century statue that had stood on the same spot. The original statue was set up in 1858 to enhance the appearance of the courtyard in front of the infirmary, which had been opened in 1770. This statue was made of terracotta and had become badly damaged as in winter water seeped into cracks and froze. That statue was itself a copy of the apparently famous Fontane del Tritone (though I’ll confess that I shamefully didn’t know it) that was set up in Rome by Pope Urban VIII, and created by the master sculptor of the baroque, Bernini.

Bernini's Fontana del Tritone
Bernini’s Fontana del Tritone

Well, the Oxford fountain isn’t an exact copy of Bernini’s. For some reason the artist John Bell has substituted a flat, disc-like shell for Bernini’s conch, which does look rather less natural a thing for Triton to be blowing through. Bernini’s triton, raised aloft on the fanned out tailfins of four Dolphins is also far more grandiose and if it had stood outside the infirmary would no doubt have caught my eye even before I had my first shot of caffeine of the day. But, reducing the height of the Oxford fountain was definitely a good decision. The fountain embellishes the square without dominating the space.

The layers of meaning don’t stop with the fountain at Rome because Urban VIII in commissioning Bernini to sculpt his Triton was inspired by a verse in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Triton is described as blowing his shell as a trumpet to command the waves. Ovid in writing his masterpiece in the late first century BC was in turn heavily influenced by Greek mythology and earlier Greek poets and may therefore well have drawn on an even earlier source or sources for his description of the water god. So, the Radcliffe Triton is a brand new replica of a Victorian statue, modelled on a baroque masterpiece, inspired by a Roman reworking of a Greek myth!!

The reason I want to talk about the fountain here, however, is because it got me thinking about how we go about trying to read the meaning of ancient monuments. You might remember from my last two pieces that the figure of Triton also stood atop the Athenian Tower of the Winds where he functioned as a weather vane, whereas Oxford’s “Tower of the Winds”, the Radcliffe Infirmary is topped by statues of Atlas and Herakles supporting a celestial sphere. If the observatory and the Radcliffe Triton were ancient monuments, considering that they stand in very close proximity to one another, it would certainly be tempting to ask whether the Triton-connection between the two had any significance. To reflect on how historians and Classical archaeologists try to answer such questions for ancient public monuments I want to think about how we might try to “read” the connection between the fountain and the observatory if we were able to look back on these monuments from a vantage point some two thousand years into the future. Of course the evidence available to us would need to be just as patchy and fragmentary as we are faced with for an ancient city like Rome or Athens.

Let’s imagine that the Oxford statue of the Triton survives only in fragments – perhaps just a piece of the head and arm – just enough to be able to recognise that the statue is a copy of Bernini’s original which has itself long since been destroyed but is known from a couple of surviving photos. Perhaps there’s a record in a local archive in Oxford of the Radcliffe Triton being set up in the mid 19th Century but the date troubles the sculpture experts who have studied the surviving fragments because they can see that techniques were used that weren’t developed until the late 20th century.

The Radcliffe Observatory has been demolished to make way for office space but it is known from a 19th century painting. For the intended meaning of the building and the significance of its artistic references to the Athenian Tower of the Winds all that we have is my blog piece from last time – written two and a half centuries after the building was erected, highly speculative and citing only one slightly earlier scholar and giving absolutely no references to any 18th century sources. The Tower of the Winds miraculously does survive in tact. It is now four thousand years old and encased in a purpose built museum where it is surrounded daily by swarms of tourists who come from all around the world specially to visit it. Of course, for this exercise to work, we also have to imagine that the internet has disappeared, or perhaps that it has become so overloaded with information that it is impossible to find anything anymore. My blog survives in print form in a single surviving manuscript of a self-published collection of personal highlights.

Of course this is a bit of fun but the serious point I am trying to make is that this mishmash of scraps of information is pretty close to what we actually are faced with in reconstructing the monumental landscape of ancient cities……..if we are very lucky. Often the evidence is even worse. So what would an archaeologist or historian of the future be likely to make of this evidence?

Well, no doubt there would be considerable discussion about the mystery relating to when the Triton fountain was built. Was the 19th century archive date wrong or were the so-called experts mistaken in their analysis? Given time somebody would no doubt come up with the theory that the original statue had been copied and replaced at some point. The ingenuity of the theory would be accepted by some, seen as contrived and implausible by others. The fact that the statue copied Bernini’s fountain in Rome would surely capture the scholarly imagination and be attributed great significance. And in trying to understand just why this fountain was copied reference would probably be made to the spatial setting of the Radcliffe fountain and its relationship to the observatory.

The Triton, present in the fountain would no doubt be seen as a deliberate reference to his missing counterpart on the roof of the observatory. This would allow all sorts of speculation about the statement that was being made here. Perhaps this was a deliberate turning away from the philhellenism that had led to the observatory being based on an old Greek building by looking to a Roman model for the Triton of the fountain. But which Rome was being referred to here? Was the fountain a statement of preference for the values of ancient Rome or for the Counter Reformation Rome of Bernini and Urban VIII – a statement about a preferred kind of classicism or of covert allegiance to Roman Catholicism? The fountain’s playfulness as a decorative ornament might also be contrasted with the function of the Tower of the Wind’s Triton as a weathervane, and with the observatory as a building of scientific observation. This new preference for ornamentation over functionality might be put forward as a symptom of cultural decadence, or even seen as a piece of ostentatious revelling in frivolity. The fact that the fountain was “deliberately” placed so as to be seen before the observatory by a visitor arriving at the Radcliffe quarter from the city centre would also be stressed as significant. In short, the jumble of assorted facts would provide ample scope for several learned papers, each presenting their “reading” of the relationship between the two monuments as self evident. But let’s now return to the present and ask whether such readings would be right? I believe they would not be.

I am convinced that it is useful to interpret the design of the Radcliffe Observatory in the context of its time as an expression of growing philhellenism and Enlightenment scientific curiosity, as I argued last time. I am also convinced that when the Triton fountain was set up before the Radcliffe Infirmary in the mid 19th Century educated viewers were meant to recognise that Bernini’s fountain had served as the prototype, and perhaps even to think of Ovid’s verse. Looking for a Triton-connection between the two buildings, however, is I believe over-reading the evidence. The hypothetical readings I put forward for our historians of the future sound rather too farfetched and contrived. The basic problem here is that it is hard to believe that the figure of Triton, in either the 18th or 19th centuries was an important enough symbol for the connection to have been significant.

Looking at the ancient world we equally run the risk of over-reading the evidence and I have come across these kinds of arguments in scholarship on ancient Greece. I’ve probably even made these kinds of arguments myself. Because our source material is so fragmentary and so slight we have an understandable desire to want to squeeze every last drop of significance out of each piece of it. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to reconstruct something of the meaning of ancient monuments. I fully believe it is. That’s exactly what I tried to do in my first three blog posts, and that is the heart of my research project. But we do need to be aware of the danger of assuming that each and every connection we can find between different pieces of evidence or between different monuments must have had a profound significance in ancient times. Sometimes two Tritons standing in the same part of a city might just be a coincidence.

The Radcliffe fountain also raises two other problems that are relevant for my research into ancient public monuments: firstly how the meaning of monuments can change over time and secondly the extent to which passersby really pay attention to the monuments in the midst. There must have been some public feeling in 21st century Oxford that the old Victorian statue of Triton needed to be replaced – that the courtyard before the old infirmary wouldn’t look right without it. But how many of the hundreds of people who walk by it every day are now aware that it is a copy? How many know that it is based on Bernini’s statue, that Bernini drew on a poem by Ovid, or that it is a representation of an old Greek god? As I mentioned, I largely ignored it for several weeks and only paid it more attention because I happen to be interested in that kind of thing and was busy writing a blog in which the figure of Triton kept coming up. How many other people even notice the fountain? For my research the next question that the fountain gives rise to is whether the inhabitants of ancient cities paid more attention to their public monuments than we do today. Or did the fact that their public spaces were so cluttered with statues and other pieces of sculpture mean that they noticed them even less?

If accessing the intentions of those who set up ancient monuments is difficult, exploring the way that people responded to them in their daily lives often seems to be near impossible. I’m hopeful, however, that we can get closer to understanding both issues and that is precisely what I’m going to be trying to do over the next two and a half years.

But what do you think? How close can we come to knowing how people in historical times experienced their public monuments? To what extent do our own preconceptions get in the way of interpreting the evidence? Is there even enough evidence from Greek or Roman culture to answer these questions? If you’ve got any thoughts on the issue please do leave a comment.

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.