The key issues at the heart of my Monuments of Roman Greece project is how the meaning of statues and other monuments were shaped by their surroundings. Drawing on archaeological, epigraphic and literary evidence I’m trying to build up as complete a picture as possible of the spatial setting of individual monuments and types of monuments. It is very rare that the three types of evidence come together to give you the feeling that you’re able to (almost) fully reconstruct a particular monumental space but over the last few days I’ve been reading up on a fascinating set of statues for which that is the case: the statues of the Artemision at Messene.
Loyal followers of this blog might remember that I visited Messene on my trip to Greece last year. The city, in the southwest Peloponnese, was founded in the 4th Century BC when the Thebans liberated the region from the oppression of Spartan rule. That made it a relative new comer to the Greek urban scene and almost all of the visible remains date to a period of prosperity that seems to have lasted from the late Hellenistic period through to the height of the Roman Empire.
The Artemision or “Oikos (house) of Artemis” as it is often called was a smallish room that was part of a larger religious complex dedicated to the god Asklepios (marked K on the map above). Asklepios is best known as the god of medicine but in Messene – a testament to the diversity of Greek religion – he seems to have been a more civic god. The Asklepieion, which is remarkably well preserved consisted of a central courtyard dominated by a temple to the god himself surrounded by a continuous colonnade behind which were various rooms. In the eastern wing was a small theatre-like meeting space, perhaps for political gatherings or religious performances. Inthe western wing was a row of so-called “oikoi” (plural of oikos) dedicated to various heroes and gods of local importance.
We happen to know which gods and heroes were housed where because the 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias tells us. From south to north they were: (i) Apollo and the Muses, (ii) a personification of the city of Thebes, Herakles and Epaminondas (the Theban general who liberated the area from the Spartans), (iii) Tyche (Fortune) and (iv)Artemis. Pausanias also tells us that the artist who created most of these statues (all except that of Epaminondas) was a local man called Damophon who’s work on religious statues is known from other passages in Pausanias and from various inscriptions found at Messene and elsewhere in the Peloponnese. Damophon seems to have been active in the late 3rd/early 2nd century BC. This evidence makes him the Hellenistic author who we know most about. There are also some amazing pieces of surviving sculpture by Damophon from a sanctuary at place called Lykosoura in the Peloponnese which I (very nearly) visited on my trip last year.
To return to Messene, as if Pausanias’ description weren’t interesting enough, fragments of some of Damophons statues were also found within the oikoi of the Asklepieion including some pieces of the cult statue of Artemis. By the time Pausanias saw the statue it would have been standing on the base at the back of its Oikos, which also, incredibly, survives for over three centuries. While the statues in the other oikoi might not have been the focus of religious worship it’s clear that the statue of Artemis was what we can conveniently call a cult statue because outside the oikos in the central open space of the square was an altar on which sacrifices would have been made to it. Pausanias refers to the statue of Artemis Phosphoros (Light Bearing) so even though not enough of the statue survives to be completely sure what she looked it is probably reasonable to imagine her holding aloft a torch. The chamber itself would probably have been fairly dark and may well have been illuminated by torchlight, perhaps only at times of cultic significance.
This already brings us spine-tinglingly close to the experience an ancient worshipper would have had when worshipping the goddess but there is more. For a start there’s an older temple of Artemis just outside the main square so we know that the cult must be one of the oldest and most important in the city. We also know that for some reason that the Hellenistic Messenians were keen to integrate the cult within their new Asklepieion complex so as to give the goddess a place alongside the other heroes and gods considered to be of particularly local significance; the entire complex is generally seen as a programmatic expression of Messenian identity during a period of political and cultural ascendance.
The most remarkable thing about the Artemision, however, is that within it several monument bases were discovered (!) bearing inscriptions (!) together with no less than 8 (!) of the statues that once stood on them. The statues are all headless – presumably vandalised like the statue of Artemis itself by the Christians of a later era – but are otherwise very well preserved. Five are of young girls, three of older priestess, all of whom served the goddess in some aspect of her cult. Together the inscriptions and pieces of sculpture provide some tantalising insights into the nature of the worship of Artemis in the building as well as into the way in which statues were used to make religious and political statements and to shape the cultic experience. But more on these statues next time…..
Last Thursday I arrived back in Athens after my trip around the Peloponnese, where I’ve been joined by my wife and a friend of ours. I lived in Athens for a year and a half while writing my PhD and returning always feels like something of a homecoming. I’ve been having a productive and enjoyable time – sampling the delights of Greek cuisine, wine and raki in the evenings, working in the library of the British School and visiting sites by day. I particularly enjoyed stolling up to see the Philoppapos monument and the Pnyx again – sites set in a surprisingly large area of undeveloped parkland to the west of the Acropolis where it’s possible to escape the traffic and the tourists and forget you are in a city inhabited by around four million people – at least that is until you reach the top of one of the hills and get a magnificent view of the seemingly endless urban sprawl.
Yesterday my wife and I had a very pleasant stroll around the South Slope of the Acropolis, another of the more peaceful archaeological sites, where you can see the remains of the late Classical theater of Dionysos and several other ancient buildings. There’s also an excellent collection of inscribed bases of statues that had been set up in the area, many in the Roman period, which makes them of particular interest toe me. We had a nice time and I managed to get a few new photos of things that I’ve probably already photographed before. I was, however, horrified, at the sight of a rather garish archaeological reconstruction project that’s being carried out in the area above the theatre.
When I last visited the area a few years ago it was still possible to see, cut into the rock of the Acropolis on eastern end of the southern face, a row of small caves, the largest and easternmost of which had been carved in antiquity into a regular square opening. Looking back at the photos I made then I can see that they’d already begun setting up marble pillars in front of the cave then. Now, the cave has been almost completely obscured by this modern building which is evidently going to be a complete reconstruction of the so-called Thrasyllos monument that was set up across the front of the cave in the late Classical period.
In Classical times, Athenian plays were performed in the context of a religious festival to Dionysos. Rich citizens would taken on the role of “choregos”, or financer of these productions, and plays were pitted against each other in competition for the best performance of that year within the two genres of comedy and tragedy. The winners were determined by popular vote and the winning choregoi were allowed to set up a tripod monument (a large bronze cauldron) somewhere on the road approaching the theatre. The choregoi were given a lot of freedom to decide what they wanted the base of their monument to look like and in the course of time they became increasingly grand. One is known to have taken the form of a small temple. The most famous is the Lysikrates monument that still stands in modern day Plaka, erected in the late 4th century BC. The Thrasyllos monument, which was constructed around the same time was another such choregic monument.
We know what the Thrasyllos monument looked like because it was drawn by visitors to Athens in the late 18th Century. It consisted of an architectural façade across the front of the cave with rectangular pillars supporting an architrave decorated with a frieze and dedicatory inscription. The structure supported a statue and, without doubt, the tripod monument itself. In Roman times (the period I am most interested in) Pausanias reports seeing a representation of Apollo and Artemis slaughtering the children of Niobe inside the cave, which might have been a painting or a sculptural group or relief. The 18th century drawings show that by that time the front had been walled up, except for a door, and was in use as a chapel.
Just as I discussed for the Hellenistic Tower of the Winds in an earlier post, these drawings were a great inspiration to contemporary architects working in Europe and America and several buildings were modelled on the ancient monument. There’s a good discussion of the influence of the Thrasyllos monument on western architecture by Calder Loth here. I didn’t realise until now that the building had such a big influence. One of my favourite examples of a building modelled on the monument is this early 19th century folly in Temple Gardens, near Lincoln, which I’d very much like to see in real life.
Tragically the Thrasyllos monument was completely destroyed by the Turks during the Greek War of Independence when they tried to recapture the lost city and besieged the Acropolis in 1827.
The modern reconstruction project is clearly aimed at reversing this catastrophe by completely rebuilding the architectural façade. I don’t know whether any fragments of the original monument survive and will be incorporated in the reconstruction but, to judge from the pillars that have already been erected and the huge collection of marble blocks piled up at the eastern end of the Acropolis ready for use, it looks likely that the structure is going to consist near enough entirely of new material. The vast quantity of marble makes me wonder just how much of the ancient Acropolis they are actually planning on rebuilding! My wife said that the scene reminded her of a storage yard of a kitchen supplier.
Modern tourists to the site will soon be confronted with a modern replica of the Thrasyllos monument, in shiny new white marble that jars horribly with the mellowed, slightly yellowy stone of the truly ancient buildings on the Acropolis. I really cannot see much point to his reconstruction at all. Most visitors will probably have little idea that what they are looking at is not a genuine survival from the ancient world, though to be honest, I suspect that few will pay the structure much attention, overshadowed as it is – quite literally – by the majesty of the Parthenon and the other Periclean buildings. The project is hardly likely to attract new visitors to the Acropolis which is already one of the most popular archaeological sites in the word.
It also isn’t going to teach us anything about the building that we didn’t already know from the 18th century drawings and if we are looking to model the experience of viewing and moving around the building a computer reconstruction already exists. I very much doubt that visitors are going to be allowed to actually enter the caves because they have always been off limits. And while little will be gained by the reconstruction much will be lost – the only truly ancient thing about the monument – the cave to its rear – will sadly disappear completely from view. I’m reminded of a similar project at Epidauros, the site in the Peloponnese famous for its theatre. There, a fascinating, well-preserved and highly unusual ancient underground labyrinth, which was once on view to visitors, has been covered over by a completely modern marble reconstruction of the Tholos building that originally stood on top of it.
I have absolutely nothing against archaeological reconstruction if it is done well and if – for me the biggest if – substantial amounts of the original building still survive. I saw some excellent examples of reconstruction last week in my visit to Messene. I’m also a big fan of the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos on the Athenian Agora, which was carried out with great attention to detail and incorporates the entire rear wall of the original building, which had stood in tact into modern times. The Stoa allows visitors to experience what it was like to walk around such an ancient building, provides welcome shade from the heat in the summer and is a perfect location for the site’s museum. A few years ago I was also lucky enough to be taken to see the Parthenon reconstruction project, which is being carried out with meticulous care and will result in a building that consists of more than 2/3 original architectural pieces.
What I do object to, is the complete fabrication of ancient monuments, that have been lost to us, particularly when such projects mean that authentically ancient remains will no longer be visible. We cannot turn back the clock and undo the destruction wrought by Turkish gunpowder and i just don’t understand why we would want to.
I’m on the home run of my Peloponnesian tour having got up early to drive from the southern most region, Messenia back to Corinth in the top right hand corner of the peninsula, near the so called Isthmus . In antiquity the Isthmus was a narrow strip of land where the Adriatic and Aegean seas very nearly met. Since the late 19th century construction of the Corinth canal ships can actually pass from one sea to the other here which I suppose, technically, should make the Peloponnese a proper island, connected to the rest of Greece by a bridge. This key intersection of both seas and land masses was a perfect site for a city to thrive, as Corinth did in Archaic and Classical times, earning itself the sobriquet “Wealthy Corinth”. Visitors to the site today, however, see few remains of this period and are confronted almost entirely by ruins of the Roman period.
In 146 BC the city of Corinth was sacked by the Roman general Mummius. It is still a matter of discussion among scholars what happened to the Greek inhabitants – it was very interesting to hear the views of Guy Sanders, director of the ongoing excavations at the site on that very subject today. It is certain, however, that the city was re-founded by the Romans, under Julius Caesar as a colony which led to a complete rebuilding of the main civic centre from the period from the 1st century BC to the late 2nd century AD. The Romanness of this city can be seen in features such as the podium-style temples erected along the west of the Forum, in the fact that this was the only city in Greece to have an amphitheatre for gladiatorial games (other Greek cities held them in their theatres) and in the fact that the language of administration, as seen on inscriptions at the site, was, up to the time of Hadrian, Latin not Greek.
I’ve been to the site quite often and studied it for my PhD thesis so I think I understand it quite well but I’m sure it looks more than a bit bewildering to most visitors today. The colonists had created their forum – essentially the area accessible to visitors – be creating a series of level terraces in what had previously been a shallow valley. However, it’s very hard to discern these terraces today because when the site was excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries the archaeologists dug down to different levels in different places creating a very uneven appearance. To compound the problem blocks from various buildings and monuments are piled up around the site. There are also few information boards and as yet no adequate guidebook. I know that someone was working on a one, which I am also sure will be very good, but I have no idea when it will be ready.
One of the things that attracts visitors to Corinth is the city’s association with St. Paul who, of course wrote letters to the Christian community here and was hauled before the Roman governor when he fell out with the local Jewish population. At the centre of the forum is a bema, a speaker’s platform, which has recently been in part restored and which is where Paul may have faced the governor. That interpretation has been challenged recently by a scholar who thinks his interrogation was in one of the Forum’s three basilicas, but I like the idea and I’ve argued in my PhD thesis that the use of the bema on such an occasion was actually quite likely from what we know of the use of such platforms elsewhere.
Highlights of the site include the old Archaic Temple (probably to Apollo), which was one of the few pre-Roman buildings to be incorporated into the new city and the Peirene fountain, sadly inaccessible to tourists but you can get a good view of it from the hill of the temple. This was the spot where the hero Bellerophon was believed to have tamed the winged horse Pegasus, and it gets a mention in Euripides’ Medea, a play set at Corinth as a place where old men sat around playing dice. There was indeed a fountain at the spot already in Archaic times connected to an incredible labyrinthine network of tunnels, several kilometres long tapping the water of an underground natural spring. You can still hear the water gushing into the fountain’s reservoirs today. The fountain was in use throughout the Greek and Roman periods of the site and over the centuries became increasingly monumentalised, becoming fronted by an architectural façade and surrounded by a courtyard. There’s an excellent, and fairly recent, monograph exploring the various phases of the building by Betsey Robinson.
As I said, I’ve been to the site many times and today, although I had a stroll around it today I spent my time mainly in the museum studying the wonderful collection of sculpture. I’d of course been there before as well but I’d forgotten quite how many treasures are on display there. Here too most of the material dates from the Roman period. There are plenty of statues of Roman emperors, including a particularly well-known over-life-size group of Augustus and his two grandsons, Lucius and Gaius. Singled out by Augustus to be his successors, both died too young to bring his dynastic ambitions to fruition. At the opposite end of the gallery there are the colossal eastern barbarians that were part of an architectural façade that was erected across the front of one of the forum’s basilicas, the so-called Captive’s Façade. There are also plenty of heads and torsos of various other statues of gods and emperors and, in the museum’s courtyard and surrounding walkway as well as a whole group of headless togate statues that had presumably been erected to civic benefactors.
I had a good look at all of this material, taking plenty of photos of details that caught my eye and. All of these statues have been studied and published but because the Corinth excavations took place so long ago, a lot of this scholarship is open to reinterpretation in the light of advances in our knowledge. In fact there’s quite a bit of work being done at Corinth by archaeologists going through the old excavation notebooks and making use of improved understandings of the chronology of pottery – the fragments of which are so important for dating archaeological layers – to challenge old interpretations and arrive at new ones. Having studied the statues and pieces of sculpture firsthand I now need to go away and (re)read what has been written about where they were found, how they were dated, and what previous scholars have said about the details that caught my eye in order to think about the impact they might have made on ancient viewers in public space.
Tomorrow I’ll be heading back to Athens to spend a week in the libraries some of the museums there. On the way back, however, I’m planning to visit two more sites – Perachora and Isthmia. The first is an Archaic and Classical sanctuary, not particularly relevant to my research but one of those sites that every Greek archaeologists really should have seen and which I, to my shame, have never got around to visiting. The second is Isthmia, the major sanctuary of Poseidon and venue of the Isthmian games, one of the four big Panhellenic Games, alongside Olympia, Delphi and Nemea. I have been there before but the museum was closed for refurbishment. Now it should be open – fingers crossed – and there should be some interesting Roman period monuments among the treasures there.
As a closing note I have to say that I did a pretty good job of not getting lost today. The only time I strayed off the beaten track a bit was when I left the ancient site of Corinth and tried to head for the modern town. I could see the town in the distance near the sea and thought if I picked a road heading towards it I’d be fine. I soon found myself on a gravel road skirting the highway, which I really need to cross somehow and then suddenly the road turned off to the left, away from modern Corinth and back into farmland at the foot of Acrocorinth. Out of the corner of my eye up ahead I thought I saw something that looked like a scarecrow but then I recognised it as a strung up teddy bear. There were actually a few of them but I only had the nerve to stop and take a photo of one. When you find yourself in a place where they’ve been lynching teddy bears you know you’ve got to get out and I did – fast!
Today was the first day of my big Peloponnesian adventure. My main goal is to spend a couple of days at both Messene and Corinth, two sites that I’m focussing on in my research as case-studies because a real wealth of Roman period material has been found at both sites. But I’ve decided to fit in a few other sites as well – mostly places I’ve never been to. Today, however, I began the trip by going to Argos, a place that I have visited several times already, because I wanted to spend a bit more time looking round the Roman bathhouse than I had before and to visit the museum because I couldn’t quite remember what Roman period stuff they’ve got on display there. The visit didn’t quite work out as planned.
After I’d managed to negotiate my way out of Athens’ frustrating one-way system I made good progress but then I stupidly took a wrong turn just before Corinth which ended up costing me a good hour’s travelling time. Stupid to think I’d really memorised the directions I’d looked up yesterday on the internet. I’ve now bought a very good map of the Peloponnese which I should have done before setting out! When I finally got to Argos I managed to got lost in that town’s one way system – I blame the poor signposting to the site – but I finally found the bathhouse, theatre and agora at around 14:45. I thought I would have a good hour and a quarter to look around but it turned out that the information I’d found on the internet was wrong and the site shuts at 15:00 rather than 16:00. On top of that it turned out that the museum is currently closed for renovation and won’t be open for a couple of years.
I did manage to quickly run around and get a few photos of the bathhouse and theatre.
The agora part of the site was completely closed and looking very overgrown. I expect that they will cut it back soon after leaving it for the winter. I didn’t mind too much that I didn’t get onto the agora because the site played a big role in my PhD thesis and I’ve spent quite a bit of time there. Despite not seeing the museum and only managing to rush around the bathhouse my journey certainly wasn’t wasted because I also managed to visit a few sites in the town that I’d never seen before. The other times I’d visited Argos I went from Athens by bus and the timing of the last bus back meant I was always quite rushed.
I drove up to take a look at the medieval castle on the Larissa hill overlooking the town, the old Acropolis of the ancient city (a bit hair-raising for someone with a fear of heights!); I also saw the remains of a sanctuary of Apollo at the foot of that hill. The most impressive thing I saw, though was a monument I’d wanted to see ever since Carole (@carolmadge) of the Following Hadrian blog (well worth reading and subscribing too!) tweeted me a photo of it a few months back- the Hadrianic Nymphaeum. Nymphaea are ornate public monumental fountain houses that take their name from the Nymphs (water-sprites) and which became very popular in the Greek world in the 2nd century AD.
The one at Argos was certainly constructed at the time of Hadrian and was possibly paid for by him. Hadrian was the most Philhellenic of all Roman Emperors and well known for his benefactions to Greek cities. Hadrian certainly did pay for an aqueduct to improve the city’s water supply by bringing water 30km from the surrounding hills because an inscription was found in the city that refers to that gift. The nympheum is located a couple of hundred metres to the east of the bathhouse and unlike that site isn’t fenced off.
An abundant water supply was seen as a sign of prosperity and success for Roman period Greek cities, which is a big part of why Nympahea became so popular in imperial times. Cities, of course, also needed lots of water for bathing in their new grand Roman-style bathhouses, of which the one at Argos, has some of the most impressive remains in Greece. The Romans, of course, were also experts at the technology required to bring water over great distances to supply cities which made such luxurious uses of water possible. It is, however, also worth recognising that there’s an important political dimension to this.
In the days before the Roman conquest there wouldn’t have been much point in Greek poleis trying to bring in vast quantities of water from far away because these city-states were constantly warring among themselves. In times of conflict, citizens retreated behind their city walls for safety. If they’d been reliant on miles of aqueducts for their water supply these structures would have been natural targets for enemies to demolish or damage. So, if one answer to the question “What did the Romans ever do for the Greeks?” is “Gave them aqueducts”, it’s also important to recognise that Roman conquest brought the political stability needed to make investment in aqueducts worthwhile. Whether that stability came at the cost of oppression is a tricky subject and one I’ll come back to in a future blog, as promised yesterday.
The Nymphaeum at Argos must have been a very grand affair. The thing that impressed me most about the ruins was the way in which you could see how the lower part of the momument had been carved out of the hillside with steps cut away on which the upper, brick part of the building rested. The whole thing would no doubt have been covered in marble revetment, thin sheets of marble veneer, a cost-effective technique that the Romans developed to make their public buildings look suitably grand without having to make them of solid marble blocks. A large niche in the centre of the rear of the building would probably have held a statue, perhaps of the emperor Hadrian if he was indeed the building’s benefactor.
I did find myself wondering where the building might have stood in relation to the rest of ancient Argos. A helpful 3D reconstruction is displayed for tourists nearby with the locations of all of the structures that have been excavated in the city, including the nymphaeum and with the locations of some of those known to have existed from inscriptions or literary sources guessed at.
The drawing gives a vivid impression of what a town like Argos must have been like in the Roman period but the truth is that there are a lot of holes in our knowledge of the topography of the city. In fact, more than any of the ancient city sites I know in Greece it has been difficult at Argos to match the buildings that have been excavated to the ancient literary sources, and in particular to Pausanias’ mid 2nd century AD description of the site. What this means is that we don’t really know exactly what a lot of the excavated structures were and that a lot of the structures mentioned in the sources still haven’t been found.
The problem arises because, as at so many other Greek sites a modern town has been built on top of the ancient one so that excavation has only been possible at certain spots within the city. The photo I took from the Nymphaion overlooking modern Argos provides a sharp contrast with the reconstruction drawing showing a view in the same direction but from slightly further away. It gives a good idea of just how much of the ancient city may still lie buried beneath modern buildings.
In a few days time I’ll be visiting Messene which is a rare example in Greece of an ancient city that hasn’t had a modern town built on top of it – there is a modern Messene but for some reason it’s 20km further south. At ancient Messene the archaeologists have unearthed some of the most impressive remains of public buildings and monuments anywhere in Greece and it’s much easier to get a sense of the scale of the ancient site and see how the city fits together. I can’t wait to get back there and see some of the exciting finds that have been made in the last few years.
Now, after a day on the road I feel that I’ve earned a relaxing evening and am about to head out for a meal by the seaside. I’m staying in an extremely touristic place called Tolo where every other building seems to be a hotel and where you can get English breakfasts and the Germans can enjoy “Zimmer am meer” (rooms with a sea view – I didn’t follow that course for nothing!). Tomorrow I’m head off to Kalamata in Messenia so that I can get to Messene on Monday. First, tomorrow I’m going to see a few sites in Arcadia, the central part of the Peloponnese including Lykosoura, a rural sanctuary where some of the only actual cult statues in Greece were discovered in the late 19th Century and the museum in Tripoli. I hope it isn’t closed for restoration works.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.