Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Boxer among 50 Hellenistic Bronzes in Getty Center exhibit

A history resource article by  © 2015

Terme Boxer photographed at the Palazzo Massimo alle
Terme in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
1st century BCE Roman copy of 3rd century Greek
original by Apollonius 
I was excited to read that one of my favorite ancient bronze sculptures, "The Terme Boxer", is part of an exhibit of 50 large scale Hellenistic bronze sculptures at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on display until November 1, 2015.  I have been fortunate to see the sculpture twice at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme venue of the National Roman Museum on two different visits to Rome and now it is coming here!  I browsed through the press materials and see that several other bronzes I am familiar with are also in the exhibit including the "Sleeping Eros" from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the bronze and copper "Portrait of a Poet (possibly Sophocles)" and the "Portrait of a North African Man" from the collections of The British Museum and the Getty's own "Victorious Youth" and "Herme of Dionysos".

In the Great Courses lecture series "Art across the Ages" Professor Ori Z. Soltes of Georgetown University explains that when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and brought much of India under Greek influence, the exchange of cultures resulted in a shift of emphasis in art from the more distant religious deities to more human subjects with which viewers could identify.  Although the blended cultures had features familiar to different members of society, a sense of alienation was also experienced.

"With alienation came the need for gods that are not merely diminished Olympians but actual humans such as Heracles and Alexander, and for gods that exhibit "sympathos" (feeling with us) and "empathos" (feeling one with us)," Soltes observes.  "Hellenistic art is art that engages the moment and shows and interest in the extremes of human experience..."The dialogues of tension and relaxation, of revelation and concealment, of motion and stasis, are spoken..."

Soltes says Hellenistic art is often about blurred lines between established human demarcations.  He points out that "Sleeping Eros", one of the sculptures in this exhibit, blurs the lines between innocence and danger.  The sleeping babe belies the divine power of the son of Aphrodite who can shoot an arrow imbuing even a god like Apollo with mad lust while another of Eros' arrows can fate an innocent maid like Daphne with disgust for her ardent suitor to the extent that she begs her father for escape and her father responds by transforming her into a laurel tree.  (This tragic tale is the subject of one of my favorite sculptures of all of those I have seen, Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne", a work of almost translucent marble that resides in the Villa Borghese in Rome.)

Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne" photographed at the Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy
 Jean-Pierre Dalbéra © 2011 reused with permission.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Getty Center will be hosting a bronze casting workshop that will give participants the opportunity to create a medallion using the lost-wax casting process as well as a portrait sculpting workshop using the exhibit as inspiration.  On October 25, Andrew Stewart, professor of ancient Mediterranean art at UC Berkeley will trace the origins and development of Greek victor statues from the 6th century to the Hellenistic period.

Here's the official press release:

During the Hellenistic era artists around the Mediterranean created innovative, realistic sculptures of physical power and emotional intensity. Bronze—with its reflective surface, tensile strength, and ability to hold the finest details—was employed for dynamic compositions, graphic expressions of age and character, and dazzling displays of the human form. 

Closeup of the hands of the Terme Boxer photographed at the
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch
© 2009. 1st century BCE Roman copy of 3rd century
Greek original by Apollonius 
On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from July 28 through November 1, 2015, Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is the first major international exhibition to bring together more than 50 ancient bronzes from the Mediterranean region and beyond ranging from the 4th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D.  
“The representation of the human figure is central to the art of almost all ancient cultures, but nowhere did it have greater importance, or more influence on later art history, than in Greece,” said Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “It was in the Hellenistic period that sculptors pushed to the limit the more dramatic effects of billowing drapery, tousled hair, and the astonishingly detailed renderings of veins, wrinkles, tendons, and musculature, making the sculpture of their time the most lifelike and emotionally charged ever made, and still one of the highpoints of European art history. At its best, Hellenistic sculpture leaves nothing to be desired or improved upon. The more than 50 works in the exhibition represent the finest of these spectacular and extremely rare works that survive, and makes this one of the most important exhibitions of ancient classical sculpture ever mounted. This is a must-see event for anyone with an interest in classical art or sculpture.” 

Bronze and copper portrait of a poet, "The Arundel Head"
200-1 BCE Smyrna, Turkey.  Photographed at
The British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Potts continued: “The Getty Museum is proud to collaborate on this project with our colleagues in Florence at the Palazzo Strozzi, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana, along with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C..” 
Large-scale bronze sculptures are among the rarest survivors of antiquity; their valuable metal was typically melted and reused. Rows of empty pedestals still seen at many ancient sites are a stark testimony to the bygone ubiquity of bronze statuary in the Hellenistic era. Ironically, many bronzes known today still exist because they were once lost at sea, only to be recovered centuries later. 

Bronze Portrait of a North African Man from
Cyrene.  Greek 300-150 BCE
Photographed at the British Museum by
Mary Harrsch © 2006.

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is especially remarkable for bringing together rare works of art that are usually exhibited in isolation. When viewed in proximity to one another, the variety of styles and techniques employed by ancient sculptors is emphasized to greater effect, as are the varying functions and histories of the bronze sculptures. Bronze, cast in molds, was a material well-suited to reproduction, and the exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity to see objects of the same type, and even from the same workshop together for the first time. For example, two herms of Dionysos – the Mahdia Herm from the Bardo National Museum, Tunisia and the Getty Herm were made in the same workshop and have not been shown together since antiquity. 
“The Mahdia Herm was found off the Tunisian coast in 1907 together with the cargo of an ancient ship carrying many artworks from Greece,” said Jens Daehner, one of the curators of the exhibition. “It is the only surviving case of an ancient bronze signed by an artist (Boëthos of Kalchedon). The idea that the Getty Herm comes from the same workshop is based on the close match of the bronze—an alloy of copper, tin, lead, and other trace elements that’s like the DNA of bronze sculptures. The information that these two works yield when studied together is extraordinary. It is a perfect example of how revealing and instructive it is to contemplate Hellenistic bronzes in concert with one another.”
Herm of Dionysos Attributed to the Workshop of
Boëthos of Kalchedon 200-100 BCE
Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch
© 2010
The exhibition is organized into six sections: Images of Rulers, Bodies Ideal and Extreme, Images of the Gods, The Art of Replication, Likeness and Expression, and Retrospective Styles.  
“Our aim in bringing together this extraordinary group of the most significant ancient bronzes that have survived is to present these works, normally viewed as isolated masterpieces, in their larger contexts,” said Kenneth Lapatin, the show’s co-curator. “These stunning sculptures come together to tell a rich story, not only of artistic accomplishment, but also of the political and cultural concerns of the people who commissioned, created, and viewed them more than two thousand years ago.”  
Closeup of Sleeping Eros Greek 300-100 BCE.  Photographed at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2007.
 Among the many famous works is the so-called Head of a Man from Delos from the National Museum of Athens, a compellingly expressive portrait with well-preserved inlaid eyes. The dramatic image of an unknown sitter is believed to date from the end of the second or beginning of the first century BC.  
The iconic Terme Boxer on loan from the National Roman Museum, with its realistic scars and bruises, stands out as the epitome of the modern understanding of Hellenistic art, employing minute detail and an emphatic, arresting subject. The weary fighter, slumped and exhausted after his brutal competition, combines the power and pathos that is unique to Hellenistic sculpture.  
Closeup of the scarred face of the Terme Boxer photographed
at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009
 Although rarely surviving today, multiple versions of the same work were the norm in antiquity. A good example is the figure of an athlete shown holding a strigil, a curved blade used to scrape oil and dirt off the skin, known in Greek as the apoxyomenos or “scraper”. This exhibition brings together three bronze casts—two full statues and a head—that are late Hellenistic or early Roman Imperial versions of a statue created in the 300s BC by a leading sculptor of the time. This was evidently one of the most famous works of its time and copies were made well into the Roman Imperial period.  

Closeup of Victorious Athlete, "The Getty Bronze"
Greek 300-100 BCE.  Photographed at the
Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch  © 2010
 Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is curated by Jens Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin, both of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; with the participation of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.  
The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, also titled Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, edited by Daehner and Lapatin. The richly illustrated book is the first comprehensive volume on large-scale Hellenistic bronze statuary and includes significant new research in archaeological, art-historical, and scientific essays. Published by Getty Publications, it is designed to be the standard reference on the subject.  
From October 13-17, 2015 archaeologists, art historians, conservators, curators, scientists, and students will convene at both the Getty Villa and the Getty Center for the 19th International Congress on Ancient Bronzes, which will use the exhibition and related research as a resource and address bronzes of the Hellenistic age and other periods through lectures and study sessions. More information can be found at

I would encourage any of you who will be traveling to the Los Angeles area between now and November 1 to make time to view this astounding collection of ancient art.  The exhibit then travels to Washington D.C. where it will be on display at the National Gallery of Art from December 13, 2015 - March 20, 2016. 

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Why did the "optimus" princeps Trajan admire Nero?

A history resource article by  © 2015

Recently, I watched Dr. Steven Tuck's lecture on the Pompeii earthquake of 62 CE from his course "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City" recorded for The Great Courses.  Dr. Tuck mentioned that the Pompeii earthquake produced a tsunami that destroyed 200 of 300 grain ships in the harbor at Ostia (actually the newly constructed harbor subsequently named Portus).  I was intrigued by this as Tacitus mentions a storm that destroyed 200 ships but does not seem to make the connection between the earthquake in Pompeii and that storm.  Tacitus merely says they occurred in the same year.

Bust of the Roman Emperor Trajan
photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2005
Anyway, I was intrigued enough to research the history of Ostia further on JSTOR and stumbled across a research paper, "Nero's Quinquennium: The Ostian Connection", by Oxford scholar M.K. Thornton that appeared in the journal Historia in 1989.  Although it made no mention of a tsunami-like phenomenon, Thornton mentions a quote by Trajan in which Trajan openly expresses profound admiration for Nero.  I found this even more intriguing than verification of the tsunami.  The quote was attributed to Trajan by Aurelius Victor and his Epitomator:

"...un merito Traianus saepius testaretur procul differre cunctos principes Neronis quinquennio."  (Trajan quite often declared that all other emperors fell behind Nero in his quinquennium).

Apparently, this quote has puzzled scholars for over a century since Nero's moral shortcomings and political brutality are usually the focus of most scholarship.  Thus we are regaled by stories of his initially bungled assassination of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, by collapsible boat and Nero's temper tantrum that ended in the death of his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, and unborn child.  We hear of his ridiculous performances in Greece and his brutal persecution of the Christians in retribution for the Great Fire of 64 CE.

The Torches of Nero by Henryk Siemiradzki (1876).  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In fact, Nero's shenanigans are so extensive, Dr. Garrett Fagan must use three lectures to detail them in his course "Emperors of Rome" produced by The Great Courses.  In contrast, Trajan who the Roman Senate voted "Optimus Princeps" and is widely recognized by scholars as one of the "good" emperors, warrants only one and a half.

So, what other aspects of Nero's reign could have prompted such an exclamation from a subsequent respectable emperor? Actually, there were a number of military conflicts, administrative challenges and major natural disasters that took place during Nero's rather short, less than 14-year, reign that was resolved successfully despite Nero's obvious moral shortcomings.  Nero did not spend all of his time conspiring to murder his relatives or practicing his lyre.

A rare gold and silver statuette of a youthful Nero
at the British Museum.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2008
Thornton discovered this question has confounded scholars since the early 20th century.   He also found that the first problem that arises when attempting to resolve this issue is identifying the time period Trajan was referencing.  Some scholars point to the first five years of Nero's reign when he was under the close supervision of his tutor Seneca the Younger and the aged Praetorian Prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus, considered a creature of Nero's mother Agrippina.  Therefore, they dismiss any favorable outcomes attributable to Nero himself.  However, an early 20th-century scholar, Professor F. Haverfield, one of the references cited by Thornton, points to the first five years of Nero's reign after Burrus died (presumably of natural causes) and Seneca resigned his court position as the period Trajan may have been referencing.

Sculpture of Old Fisherman or Dying Seneca
Photographed at The Louvre by Mary Harrsch
© 2008
In his article "Trajan on the Quinquennium Neronis" that appeared in the 1911 Vol. 1 Issue of The Journal of Roman Studies, Professor Haverfield explains, "...Nero himself tried to divide his reign up into quinquennia by establishing in 60 a quinquennale ludicrum (Tac. Ann. xiv, 20,21) and repeating it in 65 (Ann. xvi, 2).  As the second lustrum was not concluded before his death, it might be held that the period 60-65 was his [first] quinquennium."

Haverfield and his co-author J.G.C. Anderson are both convinced Trajan's admiration is directed at Nero's building programs based on a strict translation of Trajan's entire quote, in particular, the qualification "augenda urbe maxime".  They dismiss a natural interpretation, "enlarging the city", pointing out "augere" may denote an increase not only in size but also greatness, splendor, and dignity of the city.

I personally agree with this point and would take this interpretation a step further since most Romans viewed their city as representative of the empire as a whole.  Therefore I would include not only his building projects but his management of imperial business as well.

Looking at the years 60 - 65, we see that Nero's handling of the Boudiccan Revolt (60-61 CE) resulted in the successful retention of Britannia as a province.  In 62 we know from Dr. Tuck's lecture that Nero must have successfully developed a strategy to relieve any loss of Rome's food supplies and fleet from the catastrophic tsunami that destroyed 200 ships in the newly constructed harbor at Ostia and caused another 100 ships in the Tiber to catch fire.  We also know Poppaea Sabina became Nero's consort in 62 and had close family connections to Pompeii, (her villa in Oplontis still exists and is a fascinating archaeological site with many frescoes still in situ!).  She would have undoubtedly insisted Nero send aid to Pompeii after its devastating earthquake and assist in its reconstruction.  Dr. Tuck tells us the Pompeii quake was of a magnitude roughly equal to that of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake. So aid sent to Pompeii would have had to have been comprehensive and very expensive.

From 58 - 63  Nero, through his talented general Corbulo, deflected an attempt by Parthia to wrest control of Armenia away from the Romans and ultimately resolved the conflict by placing a brother of the Parthian king Vologases I on the Armenian throne.  However, the agreement included the requirement that Tiridates I swear allegiance to and be crowned by Nero as a Roman client king. Although some scholars dismiss this agreement as relatively short-lived (50 years), it forestalled any major confrontations with the Parthians until the Roman appointed Armenian king was deposed in 113 CE and the Parthians placed the nephew of then disputed Parthian King Osroes I on the throne. This resulted in Trajan's invasion of Parthia in 114 CE.

Closeup of a Lynx on a Parthian wine horn.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2015
Rome and Parthia were the two great super powers in the region during this period.  The U.S. government has certainly never been able to accomplish a period of peace lasting that long.  So, I would not dismiss this accomplishment so readily.

Although Nero was not a military man, he still expanded the empire during his reign as well. In 63 CE Pontus Polemaniacus was formally annexed into the empire as a new Roman province.  Between 63 and 66 CE the Cottian Alps was annexed as well.

Then in 64 CE, The Great Fire devastated Rome.  Tacitus tells us of Rome's 14 districts, three districts were levelled to the ground, seven districts had only a few shattered, half-burnt relics of houses remaining, and only three escaped damage.  Nero managed the aftermath of the Great Fire and began rebuilding the city on a plan that not only enhanced the city's appearance but made it easier to defend from future conflagrations.

Of Rome meanwhile, so much as was left unoccupied by his mansion, was not built up, as it had been after its burning by the Gauls, without any regularity or in any fashion, but with rows of streets according to measurement, with broad thoroughfares, with a restriction on the height of houses, with open spaces, and the further addition of colonnades, as a protection to the frontage of the blocks of tenements. These colonnades Nero promised to erect at his own expense, and to hand over the open spaces, when cleared of the debris, to the ground landlords. He also offered rewards proportioned to each person's position and property, and prescribed a period within which they were to obtain them on the completion of so many houses or blocks of building. He fixed on the marshes of Ostia for the reception of the rubbish, and arranged that the ships which had brought up corn by the Tiber, should sail down the river with cargoes of this rubbish. The buildings themselves, to a certain height, were to be solidly constructed, without wooden beams, of stone from Gabii or Alba, that material being impervious to fire. And to provide that the water which individual license had illegally appropriated, might flow in greater abundance in several places for the public use, officers were appointed, and everyone was to have in the open court the means of stopping a fire. Every building, too, was to be enclosed by its own proper wall, not by one common to others. These changes which were liked for their utility also added beauty to the new city. - Tacitus, Annals, Book XV

A fresco from Nero's Domus Aurea (Golden House).  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I knew Nero had thrown open public buildings and even his own garden to refugees from the fire but I was surprised to read in "Nero: The Man Behind The Myth" by Richard Holland that Nero took over personal leadership of the vigiles (firefighters).

"Nero now took over personal leadership of these already exhausted men, whose prefect, until recently, had been Tigellinus. The young Emperor was to be seen rushing about the city, directing operations by day and night, unprotected by his usual armed guards, whom he had presumably already pressed into temporary service as firefighters, along with any other able-bodied men he could find." - Richard Holland, "Nero: The Man Behind The Myth".

Doesn't sound much like fiddling while Rome burned, does it?

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any ancient references to this account in the translations of Tacitus, Suetonius or Cassius Dio I have read so I'm not sure who Holland used for a source.

Nero also had to manage a plague that struck Rome and claimed 30,000 victims.  Suetonius is the only source for this incident and we're not sure when it occurred other than "one autumn".  But it would certainly have been a real possibility following the fire when so many people were forced to live in cramped temporary dwellings while awaiting reconstruction

In 64 CE Nero also issued a coin memorializing the completion of the great new harbor at Ostia.  The harbor was begun by his adopted father Claudius in 42 CE and some scholars scoff that it was almost complete when Claudius was assassinated and Nero simply took credit for it.  But, we know from Tacitus (Ann. 15.18.3) that in 62 CE a terrible storm destroyed 200 ships anchored in the new harbor and most certainly must have done tremendous damage to the harbor itself as well.  This would account for a rather delayed recognition of the completion of this project.

Portus: Claudius' first harbor and hexagonal basin extension under Trajan
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Thornton points out, "...Nero obviously credited himself with much of the construction: he placed the harbor of Ostia on his coins as a symbol of his reign.  He would be unlikely to do that if he could not convincingly claim it as his own contribution.  Trajan's remark must be construed as showing that in the minds of the Romans Nero should get credit for the harbor than we today might be inclined to give him." - - M. K. Thornton, Nero's Quinquennium: The Ostian Connection

Thornton is convinced it is the harbor at Ostia that evoked the admiring quote from Trajan.

"Who else built a harbor? Trajan did.  Not only the one at Ostia but a number of others; Nero also built a harbor at Antium and was interested in other waterways which would improve the obtaining of the food supply.  Trajan, having built the more easily constructed second and smaller harbor at Ostia would respect Nero's accomplishment in building the first and far more difficult outer harbor, without which the inner harbor would have been impossible.  Trajan knew first hand that the building of the harbor was a difficult task.  His admiration for Nero came honestly from a deep appreciation of a very large task well done." - M. K. Thornton, Nero's Quinquennium: The Ostian Connection

But then Thornton goes on to dismiss other achievements mentioned by Aurelius Victor in the complete Trajan quotation as mere citations of other accomplishments of Nero, not necessarily within his first five years.  I disagree.  I think Trajan, speaking out of genuine respect for Nero's multiple administrative achievements,  probably considered the first five years of Nero's reign after the death of Claudius as more of a regency period rather than Nero's own. So Trajan viewed Nero's first quinquennium as really 60 - 65 CE.

Reviewing the almost overwhelming events of those five years, I no longer find Trajan's quote puzzling at all!


Thornton, M. (1989). Nero's Quinquennium: The Ostian Connection. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 38(1), 117-119. Retrieved from

Victor, A. De Caesaribus.

Anderson, J., & Haverfield, F. (1911). Trajan on the Quinquennium Neronis. The Journal of Roman Studies, 1, 173-179. doi:10.2307/295862

Tacitus, C. Annals. multiple references.

Holland, R. (2000). Nero: the man behind the myth. Stroud: Sutton.

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!