Sunday, November 29, 2020

Phrixus and the origin of the golden fleece

 In Greek mythology Phrixus was the son of Athamas, king of Boeotia, and Nephele, a goddess of clouds  He had a twin sister named Helle.  The twins were hated by their stepmother, Ino, who plotted to get rid of them.  She roasted all of  Boeotia's crop seeds so they would not grow. The local farmers, frightened of famine, asked a nearby oracle for assistance. Ino bribed the men sent to the oracle to lie and tell the others that the oracle required the sacrifice of Phrixus and Helle. Before they were killed, though, Phrixus and Helle were rescued by a flying, or swimming, ram with golden wool sent by Nephele, their natural mother. Sadly, while crossing the strait between Europe and Asia, Helle fell off the ram and drowned (hence, the name Hellespont, sea of Helle).

Phrixus survived all the way to Colchis, where King Aeëtes, the son of the sun god Helios, took him in and treated him kindly, giving Phrixus his daughter, Chalciope, in marriage. In gratitude, Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Poseidon and gave the king the Golden Fleece of the ram, which Aeëtes hung in a tree in the holy grove of Ares in his kingdom, guarded by a dragon that never slept. Phrixus and Chalciope had four sons, who later joined forces with Jason and the Argonauts. 

Image: Terracotta plaque depicting Phrixos holding the horns of the ram, who carries him over the waves as fish cavort in the sea below, ca. 450 BCE, Greek, Melian, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of the museum.

Fresco of Phrixus trying to save his twin sister Helle in a Roman wall painting from Pompeii now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Minerva or Bellona?

Despite the Roman association between Minerva and Athena and the frequent depiction of both goddesses with armor, unlike Athena, Minerva was not considered a war goddess in the Roman pantheon. The Romans had their own war goddess Bellona, originally an ancient Sabine goddess of war identified with Nerio, the consort of the war god Mars, and later with the Greek war goddess Enyo. 

Bellona's main attribute is the military helmet that was worn on her head much like Athena.  Bellona  is often depcicted holding a sword, spear, or shield, and brandishing a torch or whip as she rides into battle in a four-horse chariot. 

Bellona had a temple near the Theatre of Marcellus dedicated in 296 BCE near the Circus Flaminius by Appius Claudius Caecus, during the war with the Etruscans and Samnites. The Roman Campus Martius area, in which Bellona’s temple was situated, had extraterritorial status. Ambassadors from foreign states, who were not allowed to enter the city proper, stayed in this complex. Since the area of the temple was outside the pomerium, the Senate met there with ambassadors and received victorious generals prior to their triumphs. Beside the temple was the war column (columna bellica), which represented non-Roman territory. To declare war on a distant state, a javelin was thrown over the column by one of the priests concerned with diplomacy (fetiales) toward the direction of the enemy land. This symbolic attack was considered the opening of war.

Bellona's festival was celebrated on June 3, and her priests were known as Bellonarii and used to wound their own arms or legs as a blood sacrifice to her. These rites took place on March 24, called the day of blood (dies sanguinis), after the ceremony. In consequence of this practice, which was similar to the rites of Cybele in Asia Minor, both Enyo and Bellona became identified with her Cappadocian aspect, Ma.

In the military cult of Bellona, she was associated with Virtus, the personification of valour. Her worship by the legions extended her cult into the provinces. Temples to Bellona have been recorded in France, Germany, Britain, and North Africa.

In art, Bellona and Minerva have been frequently confused.  French artist Augustin Pajou created a sculpture between 1775-1785 that he dubbed Minerva but bearing the attributes of Bellona.  I was surprised on reading the J. Paul Getty Museum's entry for the sculpture stating Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom (a shared attribute with Athena) and war (??), striding forward to protect Painting, Sculpture, Music, Justice, and Medicine, the attributes of which lie at her feet.  But she wears the helmet and carries the torch of Bellona. A beautiful ancient Roman relief in the Carthage National Museum, however, clearly illustrates the difference between the two deities.  In this relief, Minerva stands beside a collection of a warrior's armor (although not the goddess of war, Minerva was considered a patron of warriors) but does not wear a helmet or brandish a weapon or torch.

Roman relief of Minerva at the Carthage National Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Mourad Ben Abdallah (digitally enhanced).

"Minerva" by Augustin Pajou at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California courtesy of the museum. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Africans in Greek and Roman Art

 The Bronze Age Minoans of Crete were probably the first Greeks to come into contact with Ethiopians, a Greek name meaning those with "burnt" faces.  The tomb of Rekhmire, governor of Thebes and vizier during the reigns of the pharaohs Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II, circa 1400 BCE, includes one of the earliest depictions of both African and Aegean peoples, thought to be Nubians and Minoans.  However, the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age severed Greek connections with Egypt and even the Near East.

Trade between the Greeks and the northern periphery of Africa finally resumed in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE including the establishment of trading centers along the Nile and at Cyrene on the northern coast of Africa. Then depictions of Africans began to appear in Aegean art.

All black Africans were known as Ethiopians to the ancient Greeks, as the fifth-century BCE historian Herodotus tells us, with their black skin color being the primary identifying physical characteristic. The black glaze central to Athenian vase painting was ideally suited for representing black skin and archaeologists have also recovered black African comic masks used in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

By the 4th century BCE, Ethiopians were regularly featured in Greek vase painting, especially on the highly decorative red-figure vases produced by the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia, although depictions of Ethiopians in scenes of everyday life were still rare.  However, after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, knowledge of Nubia became more widespread as Greeks and Africans lived together in metropolitan centers like Alexandria.

As a result, African imagery in Greek art expanded  and Ethiopians were frequently depicted as athletes and entertainers. African artisans became subjects of artwork, too,  as well as some African slaves captured during wartime or through piracy.  Images of "Ethiopians" began to appear on gold jewelry and fine bronze statuettes like the one included here from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Read more about it and view additional artifacts at:

Bronze lamp in the shape of a Nubian head Pompeii Roman 1st century CE that I photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibition" at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon.

Roman portrait of a man with African attributes carved with a turned head and redirected gaze in the style of Caracalla 230-240 CE photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Bronze lamp in the shape of a Nubian head found near the Porta Nola in Pompeii Roman 1st century CE that I photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibit" at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington.

Head of a Man with tight, curly hair, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 100 BCE Marble that I photographed at the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York.

Terracotta vase in the form of a sleeping African boy Cypriot 3rd-2nd century BCE from Cyprus that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Terracotta vase combining the distinctive neck of the Shape VII oinochoe with a naturalistic head of a young black-African boy Etruscan 4th century BCE  that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Terracotta vase with janiform heads (left) and terracotta mug in the form a black African boy's head Etruscan late 4th century BCE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Head of a Young Roman Boy probably from North Africa 150-200 CE Marble that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Bronze statuette of an African (known as Ethiopian) youth, 3rd–2nd century BCE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The distinctive garment is characteristic of artisans, especially those working in the heat of a foundry, forge, or brazier.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Small Etruscan bronzes

 The Etruscans had a strong tradition of working in bronze from very early times, and their small bronzes were widely exported. Ancient sources reveal accounts of large numbers of statues sent to Rome after their conquest.  According to Pliny, the Romans looted 2,000 bronze statues from the city of Volsinii alone after capturing it.

The Etruscans excelled in portraying humans. In the 7th century BCE they started depicting human heads on canopic urns and when they started burying their dead in the late 6th century BCE they began portraying full figures on terracotta sarcophagi and funerary urns, often reclining as if at the funeral banquet.

Apart from cast bronze, the Etruscans were also skilled at the engraving of cast pieces with complex linear images, whose lines were filled with a white material to highlight them.  This technique was used primarily on mirrors and cistae. Sadly, few pieces survive with the defining filling still intact.

Image: Bronze statuette of a youth, late 5th century BCE, Etruscan, thought to be from Veii. This exquisite statue depicts a nude young man with hands raised in the ancient prayer gesture. The facial features, hair, and musculature are all precisely and accurately modeled. The stance and even the hairstyle with long wavy locks parted at the center owe much to Greek sculptures by Polykleitos, especially his Doryphoros and Diadoumenos. However, the slightly almond-shaped eyes reflect a hint of the Etruscan origin.  Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Alectryomancy and the sacred rooster

Since antiquity, the rooster has been, and still is, a sacred animal in some cultures and deeply embedded within various religious belief systems and religious worship. In ancient Babylon the rooster was considered the bird form of the True Shepherd of Anu and was considered the ordained herald of the gods. Nergal, a deity whose name meant "dunghill cock" or fighting cock, was worshipped by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Persians.  The term "Persian bird" was given to the cock by the Greeks after Persian contact "because of his great importance and his religious use among the Persians." This stems from the sacred nature of the cock, attested to in the texts of Zoroastrianism,  during the legendary Kayanian Period from about 2000 BCE to about 700 BCE. 

Perhaps because of their ancient association as a divine messenger, roosters played an important role in both Etruscan and Roman religion.  Observing a rooster's willingness to eat grain kernels as a means to divine the omens for battle, marriage, or some other important action, known as alectryomancy, was frequently practiced. The Etruscans, established an elaborate ritual of alectryomancy using a hen to find answers for life's most pressing problems. The process involved a circle, which was divided into twenty parts to represent the Etruscan alphabet and each sector was sprinkled with corn. The bird is placed at the middle and the sequence of its pecking was recorded.  Roman rituals, building upon the practices of the Etruscans, were conducted with such an extraordinary level of organization that they are considered unparalleled among ancient civilizations.  A rare form of alectryomancy practiced by the Romans included divination by a cock-stone, a crystal-colored stone found in a rooster's crop that was considered to have magical powers.

The cockerel was already of symbolic importance in Gaul at the time of the invasion of Julius Caesar and was associated with the god Lugus, a Celtic deity who the Romans believed to be equivalent to Mercury.  Of the six Celtic gods identified by Caesar as those worshipped in Gaul, Caesar thought Lugus was the most revered, describing him as patron of trade and commerce, protector of travelers, and the inventor of all the arts. Lugus' (Mercury's) importance is supported by the more than 400 inscriptions referencing him in Roman Gaul and Britain. However, Unlike the Roman Mercury, who is typically a youth, Gaulish Mercury is occasionally also represented as an old man.

Closeup of a Roman opus vermiculatum mosaic depicting two cocks who confront each other in combat before a table displaying the winner's prizes: the purse (a moneybag) flanked by a caduceus and a palm of victory at NAM Naples courtesy of Carole Raddato. 

.  A mosaic of a slave with two roosters from Pompeii 1st century BCE - 1st century CE at the NAM Naples courtesy of Wikimedia contributor Amphipolis.  

Mosaic of a cockfight from Pompeii (Casa del Labirinto, VI.11.10) in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko. 

Children Watching A Cockfight, Greek, Amisos, Asia Minor, 2nd century - 1st century BCE, Terracotta, that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Terracotta statuette of a boy and a rooster, Greek, Asia Minor, Pontus 2nd century BCE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Roman mosaic of a colorful cockerl that I photographed at the Terme di Diocleziano venue of the National Musem of Rome

Etruscan askos in the form of a rooster, 4th century BCE, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York courtesy of the museum.

Terracotta skos (flask with a spout) in the form of a cock, Italic 2nd half of the 3rd century BCE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Askoi shaped like animals were commonly used as lamp fillers; the oil was introduced into the askos via the small inlet off to the side, and was then poured out through a tiny hole under the beak into the lamp in a smooth and controlled stream. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Animal mummies of the Ptolemaic and Roman Period

The earliest signs of non-human animal mummies are dated to the Badarian Predynastic Period (5500–4000 BCE), before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is likely that animal mummies did not exist earlier because of the cost of mummification.  Although some animal mummies indicate only minimal treatment,  recent radiological studies by archaeologists indicate that animal mummification may have more closely followed human mummification than was originally thought. The presence of fats, oils, beeswax, sugar gum, petroleum bitumen, and coniferous cedar resins in animal mummies shows that the chemicals used to embalm animals were similar to those used on humans.

Instead of worshipping every animal of a particular species, a few animal cults would select one specific animal, chosen because of its special markings, to be the totem of the particular god. Each sacred animal was pampered and cared for until its death, when elaborate burial proceedings took place. The animal was then mummified as a sign of respect to the god. Then a new symbolic animal was chosen. These animal cults reached the pinnacle of popularity during the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods.

Image: Rhinoceros beetle sarcophagus, 664–30 BCE, Ptolemaic Period, Egypt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This rather sinister horned creature seems to represent the rhinoceros beetle, Oryctes nascicarnis, which is native to the Mediterranean region. The small bronze sarcophagus that it guards once held a beetle mummy, though not necessarily of the same species. In embalming beetles, as in all animal mummification, the Egyptians of the Late Period and Ptolemaic and Roman times gave tangible form to their belief that all animals, large and small were incarnations of the divine. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

To me the timing seems a little ironic since so many animals from Africa were hunted, some species to extinction, to provide fodder for Roman games. That hardly seems like treating animals as manifestations of the divine.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Byzantine Temple Pendants

 Temple pendants are thought to have hung near the temple or cheek, suspended from the wearer’s hair or headdress. The pendant’s hollow interior probably held a piece of perfumed cloth. A small stick would have been used to guide the cloth in and out of the pendant.

When Kievan Rus, a powerful new state to the north of the Byzantine Empire, accepted Christianity as its official religion in 988, the aristocracy also adopted the manners and dress of the Byzantine court. Local artists soon produced their own versions of Constatinopolitan fashions. Temple pendants of precious metals worked in cloisonné enamel or niello are local variants of the more intricately detailed works made for the Byzantine court. As in Byzantium, temple pendants may have been worn next to the face by both the men and the women of Rus. The works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art were perhaps buried by their owners when the Mongol armies under Batu Khan sacked Kiev in 1240.

In her paper "Temple Pendants' in Medieval Rus': How Were They Worn?", Ntalija Ristovska points out that  excavated burials with the precise location of ornaments on the body revealed by oxide staining on the skeleton, have shown that up to 12 rings were worn entangled in the hair at each side of the head, either in a cluster at the level of the temples or ears or arranged in a single row in the area between the forehead and the shoulders.  In some cases ornaments were secured by plaits or twisted sections of hair which ran from the temples to the back of the head.  Other examples revealed that one of more rings were threaded through leather and textile straps hanging from a headband or hat.  She also observes that combinations of different ornament types on each side of the head was common.

To read more about these ornaments and see drawings of excavated examples being worn check out her paper:

Temple Pendant and Stick ca. 1080–1150 CE Byzantine courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Temple Pendant and Stick ca. 1080–1150 CE Byzantine courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 Temple Pendant with Two Birds Flanking a Tree of Life courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

An historical reenactor wearing temple pendants courtesy of Pinterest.

Two Sirens flanking a Tree of Life ca. 1000–1200 CE from Kievan Rus courtesy of the 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Roman cavalry masks

 According to Arrian of Nicomedia, a Roman provincial governor and a close friend of Hadrian, face mask helmets were used in cavalry parades and sporting mock battles called “hippika gymnasia“.  Both men and horses wore elaborate suites of equipment on these occasions, often in the guise of Greeks and Amazons. Parades or tournaments played an important part in maintaining unit morale and fighting effectiveness. They took place on a parade ground situated outside a fort and involved the cavalry practising manoeuvring and the handling of weapons such as javelins and spears (Fields, Nic; Hook, Adam. Roman auxiliary cavalryman: AD 14-193).

Calvary helmets were made from a variety of metals and alloys, often from gold-coloured alloys or iron covered with tin. They were decorated with embossed reliefs and engravings depicting the war god Mars and other divine and semi-divine figures associated with the military.

To see a fascinating selection of these masks and read more about them check out:

Image: Face mask of a cavalry helmet, second century, from Durnomagus (Dormagen), Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn (Germany) courtesy of Carole Raddato.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Apulian vase painting

Apulian vase painting was the leading South Italian vase painting tradition between 430 and 300 BCE. Of the approximately 20,000 surviving specimens of Italian red-figure vases, about half are from Apulian production, while the rest are from the four other centers of production, Paestum, Campania, Lucania and Sicily.   The south Italian clays are less rich in iron than Attic clay. As a result, south Italian clay would not reach the rich red known from Attic red-figure vases. This was compensated for, however, by the addition of slips of light ochre clay before firing, which also produced smoother surfaces. Ancient Tarantino, which became Tarentum under the Romans, was the main production center for Apulian vases and produced two styles - the "Plain" and the "Ornate."

The "Plain" style was mostly used for the decoration of bell kraters, colonet kraters and smaller vessels and used little supplemental coloring. Pictorial compositions usually included one to four figures (e.g., works by Sisyphus Painter, Tarporley Painter). The motifs focused on mythical subjects, but also included women's heads, warriors in scenes of battle or departure, and Dionysiac retinue imagery.

The "Ornate" style, as exemplified here, was used on larger vessels such as volute kraters, amphorae, loutrophoroi and hydriai. Compositions contained up to 20 figures, often arranged in two or more registers. The figures frequently appear to be floating. Supplemental coloring was used copiously, especially red, gold/yellow and white. While ornamentation had originally been relatively simple, from the mid-fourth century BCE onwards, painters increasingly placed rich vegetal ornaments, especially on the necks and sides of vases. At the same time, simple perspective depictions of architecture, especially of "Underworld Palaces" (naiskoi) became common. From about 360 BCE, a common motif was grave scenes showing individuals performing offerings at a stylized grave or pillar. Important representatives painters include the Ilioupersis Painter, the Darius Painter and the Baltimore Painter.

Popular mythological motifs include the Assembly of the Gods, the Amazonomachy, Bellerophon, Heracles, and events of the Trojan War. There are also many individual depictions of myths that are not commonly depicted elsewhere.  In the second half of the fourth century, depictions of weddings, women and erotic motifs become more common. Apulian vases also occasionally depict theatrical scenes, which are also known from the other South Italian traditions, but absent in Attica. These include motifs from dramatic theatre as well as farce (phlyax play). In contrast, scenes of everyday life and athletic motifs disappear from the repertoire almost entirely after 370 BCE.

Image: Terracotta loutrophoros (ceremonial funeral vase for water), Tarentine, ca. 340–330 BCE, attributed to the Darius Painter, Apulian, south Italy, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 The Tarentine predilection for disciplined yet exuberant embellishment is applied here to an imposing vase with deeply serious iconography. In the primary scene, Persephone and Aphrodite, who both laid claim to the beautiful hunter Adonis, await a judgment from the deity seated between them. He may be interpreted as Zeus or as Hades, ruler of the Underworld. Differing versions of the verdict allowed the hero to divide his time between the goddesses. In the zone below, a youth is isolated between a grave monument and a laver as figures approach from either side. The themes of death and the Underworld are complemented with luxuriant vegetation. The myth of the death and rebirth of Adonis is connected with seasonal change, and the abundant vegetation on this loutrophoros could symbolize rebirth, an appropriate theme for a funeral vase. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The cult of Serapis: Visions and Portents

Serapis, sometimes spelled Sarapis, is a Graeco-Egyptian deity promoted during the 3rd century BCE by Ptolemy I Soter as a means to unify Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.  Alexander the Great had attempted to use Amun for this purpose, but he was more prominent in Upper Egypt, and not as popular in Lower Egypt, where the Greeks had stronger influence. Ptolemy built an immense temple to the god in Alexandria which became known as the Serapeum.  

However, there is evidence the cult of Serapis existed before the Ptolemies came to power in Alexandria as a temple of Serapis in Egypt is mentioned in 323 BCE by both Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 76) and Arrian (Anabasis, VII, 26, 2).  In descriptions of Alexander's death, a temple of Serapis is said to have existed in Babylon at the time and Serapis was considered so important,  he alone is named as being consulted on behalf of the dying king.  Some scholars point out, though, that a Babylonian god named Ea (also referred to as Enki) was titled Šar Apsi, meaning "king of the Apsu" or "the watery deep", and perhaps he is the one meant in the diaries.

Plutarch claimed Ptolemy stole the cult statue of Serapis from Sinope in Asia Minor after being  instructed in a dream by the "unknown god" to bring the statue to Alexandria.  There, a member of the  Eumolpidae, the ancient family from whose members the hierophant of the Eleusinian Mysteries had been chosen, proclaimed it to be Serapis. Tacitus, however, stated that Serapis had been the god of the village of Rhakotis before it expanded into the great capital of Alexandria.

The statue suitably depicted a figure resembling Hades or Pluto, both being kings of the Greek underworld, and was shown enthroned with the modius, a basket/grain-measure, on his head, since it was a Greek symbol for the land of the dead. He also held a sceptre in his hand indicating his rulership, with Cerberus, gatekeeper of the underworld, resting at his feet. The statue also had what appeared to be a serpent at its base, fitting the Egyptian symbol of rulership, the uraeus.

Whatever its origins, by the second century Serapis was well ensconced in both the Greek world and throughout the Roman Empire.  Pausanias notes two Serapeia on the slopes of Acrocorinth, above the rebuilt Roman city of Corinth and one at Copae in Boeotia. At Rome, Serapis was worshiped in the Iseum Campense, the sanctuary of Isis built during the Second Triumvirate in the Campus Martius. The Roman cults of Isis and Serapis gained in popularity late in the 1st century CE when Vespasian experienced a vision while visiting the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria where he was securing Egypt's grain supply before returning to Rome triumphantly as emperor in 70 CE. Later, Vespasian  was confronted by two laborers, who were convinced that he possessed a divine power that could work miracles. From the Flavian Dynasty onward, Serapis was one of the deities who sometimes appeared on imperial coinage with the reigning emperor.

High Clerk in the Cult of Serapis, 230 - 240 CE,  at the Altes Museum, Berlin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Ophelia2.

A fragmented statue of Serapis with a modius on the head, depicted as Pluto, next to him is standing the three headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the Hades, from the Roman Villa of Chiragan, 3rd - 4th century CE at the Musée Saint-Raymond in Toulouse, France, courtesy of Carole Raddato.  

Monday, November 16, 2020

Elite Roman portraiture of the Republican Period

 Roman portrait sculpture from the Republican era tends to be somewhat more modest, realistic, and natural compared to early Imperial works  Republican Rome embraced imperfection in portraiture because, though there were different levels of power each class of society had, everybody had physical blemishes, so this type of untouched physical representation fostered a sense of community by implying that, while there were existing inequalities, that did not change the fact that they were Romans. Veristic portraits, including arguably ugly features, was also a way of showing confidence and of placing a value on strength and leadership above superficial beauty. This type of portraiture sought to show what mattered to the Romans - powerful character valued above appearances. This hyper-realism was often achieved through the production of a wax cast from the family member while they were still living,

Image: Sensitively modeled bronze portrait bust of a Roman male with inlaid ivory eyes, 50 BCE - 54 CE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Roman theater and Seneca's tragedies

Roman theater began to develop following the devastation of a widespread plague in 364 BCE. Roman citizens began including theatrical presentations as a supplement to the Lectisternium ceremonies, religious propitiatory meals, in a stronger effort to pacify the gods. In the years following the establishment of these practices, actors began adapting these dances and games into performances by acting out texts set to music and simultaneous movement.

As the era of the Roman Republic progressed, citizens began including professionally performed drama in the eclectic offerings of the ludi (celebrations of public holidays) held throughout each year—the largest of these festivals being the Ludi Romani, held each September in honor of the Roman god Jupiter. It was as a part of the Ludi Romani in 240 BCE that author and playwright Livius Adronicus became the first to produce translations of Greek plays to be performed on the Roman stage.

In the 1st century CE, Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher and tutor to the emperor Nero, wrote tragedies that used a declamatory style emphasizing rhetoric. These works sought to reflect the soul of a tragic character by using rhetoric to reveal something about the state of the character's mind. One of the most notable ways that Seneca developed a tragedy, was through the use of an aside, a common theatre device in Hellenistic drama, but, at the time, foreign to the world of Attic tragedy. Seneca used 'self-representational soliloquies or monologues,' which focused on one's inner thoughts, the central causes of their emotional conflicts, their self-deception, as well as other varieties of psychological turmoil to dramatize emotion in a way that became central to Roman tragedy, distinguishing it from prior forms of Greek tragedy. Perhaps this figure represented a  rhetorician in one of Seneca's dramas.

Of course one of the most eye-catching aspects of this figure is the very short tunic and cloak he wears. The length of a Roman tunic indicated the wearer's social status.  Soldiers, manual workers, and even slaves usually wore tunics that reached to just a little above the knee.  Actors, however, were considered "infamia," an official exclusion from the legal protections enjoyed by a Roman citizen that included corporal punishment, usually reserved for slaves. This lowly status is reflected in the length of this figure's garments.

Image: Bronze statuette of a draped man thought to be an actor, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE, Greek or Roman, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This impressive statuette shows a mature, bearded man who stands purposefully and looks upward. The cloak that covers his torso also conceals his arms, bent forward over his chest. Proposed identifications have linked him with the theater, specifically as an actor declaiming a text rather than playing a role. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saturday, November 14, 2020

One-eyed warriors and gold-guarding griffins

 The relief on this elegantly worked roundel depicts a nude youth being attacked by a griffin. It relates to legends, first mentioned by the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, of the people called Arimasps who lived east of the Black Sea.Their land was rich in gold, but the gold was guarded by fierce griffins. The subject became popular during the Hellenistic period, especially for terracottas produced in Tarentum. It is likely that these South Italian models inspired the Central Italian adaptation on this bronze. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Arimaspi were a legendary tribe of one-eyed people of northern Scythia who lived in the foothills of the Riphean Mountains, variously identified with the Ural or Carpathian mountains.  The tales of their struggles with gold-guarding griffins in the Hyperborean lands beyond Thrace, reported by Herodotus, were originally told in a lost archaeic poem, Arimaspea, by Aristeas,  a native of Proconnesus in Asia Minor, active during the 7th century BCE.   Strabo and Pliny's Natural History perpetuated the fables about the northern people who had a single eye in the center of their foreheads and engaged in stealing gold from the griffins.

Scholars point out that the struggle between the Arimaspi and the griffins has remarkable similarities to Homer's account of the Pygmaioi warring with cranes:

"...when the cranes escape the winter time and the rains unceasing and clamorously wing their way to the streaming Ocean, bringing to the Pygmaian men bloodshed and destruction..." - Homer, The Iliad

In his History of Animals, Aristotle claims the story is true, "these birds [the cranes] migrate from the steppes of Scythia to the marshlands south of Egypt where the Nile has its source. And it is here, by the way, that they are said to fight with the pygmies. The story is not fabulous, as there is in reality a race of dwarfish men, and the horses are little in proportion, and the men live in caves underground."

The Roman poet Ovid also describes such an age-old battle in one of his stories when a Pygmy Queen named Gerana who offended the goddess Hera with her boasts of superior beauty, was transformed into a crane.

Modern historians speculate Herodotus or his source may have understood the Scythian word as a combination of the roots arima ("one") and spou ("eye") and to have created a mythic image to account for it. This similarity of name and location, however, could point to the ancestors of the local Uralic people, the Mari.

Bronze lid and upper part of an oil flask depicting a youth being attacked by a griffin, 4th century BCE, Praenestine, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Many Names and Faces of Persephone (Proserpina)

The daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Persephone, often referred to as Kore, became queen of the underworld when she was abducted by Hades.  As a goddess associated with the spring fertility of vegetation, she was worshipped along with her mother Demeter in the rites of the  Eleusinian Mysteries, which promised the initiated a more enjoyable prospect after death.  

However her cult was based on ancient agrarian rituals that were practiced around the Mediterranean at Minoan Crete, Egypt, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia, and Libya far earlier.  In Minoan Crete, the female vegetation divinity was identified as Ariadne.  Some scholars suggest the name Ariadne was a "friendly" name, derived from the word for "pure," because of a superstitious taboo about speaking the real names of deities associated with the underworld. In another cult on Crete, Persephone was  conflated with Despoina, "the mistress" of a chthonic divinity, who was considered the unnameable daughter of Poseidon.

Evidence from both the Orphic Hymns and tablets known as the Orphic Gold Leaves demonstrate that Persephone was one of the most important deities worshiped in Orphism. Gold leaves with verses intended to help the deceased enter into an optimal afterlife were often buried with the dead. Persephone is mentioned frequently in these tablets. Those seeking the ideal afterlife strive for the "sacred meadows and groves of Persephone".  Other gold leaves describe Persephone's role in receiving and sheltering the dead. 

At Locri, a city of Magna Graecia situated on the coast of the Ionian Sea in Calabria (a region of southern Italy), perhaps uniquely, Persephone was worshiped as protector of marriage and childbirth, a role usually assumed by Hera.  Children at Locri were dedicated to Proserpina, and maidens about to be wed brought their peplos to be blessed. Diodorus Siculus knew the temple there as the most illustrious in Italy. During the 5th century BCE, votive pinakes in terracotta were often dedicated as offerings to the goddess, made in series and painted with bright colors, animated by scenes connected to the myth of Persephone. Many of these pinakes are now on display in the National Museum of Magna Græcia in Reggio Calabria.

The Romans first heard of her from the Aeolian and Dorian cities of Magna Graecia, who used the dialectal variant Proserpinē. Hence, in Roman mythology she was called Proserpina, a name erroneously derived by the Romans from proserpere, "to shoot forth." In 205 BCE, Rome officially identified Proserpina with the local Italic goddess Libera, who, along with Liber, were strongly associated with the Roman grain goddess Ceres (considered equivalent to the Greek Demeter). The Roman author Gaius Julius Hyginus also considered Proserpina equivalent to the Cretan goddess Ariadne, who was the bride of Liber's Greek equivalent, Dionysus.

In Athens, a festival called the Thesmophoria  which included secret women-only rituals was celebrated in the month of Pyanepsion, when Kore was abducted and Demeter abstained from her role as goddess of harvest and growth. The ceremony involved sinking sacrifices into the earth by night and retrieving the decaying remains of pigs that had been placed in the megara of Demeter (trenches and pits or natural clefts in rock), the previous year. These were placed on altars, mixed with seeds, then planted. Pits rich in organic matter at Eleusis have been taken as evidence that the Thesmophoria was held there as well as in other demes of Attica.

Images: Onyx cameo fragment thought to depict an episode from the story of Proserpine and Pluto, Roman, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Closeup of a  votive Kore (Statue of a Young Woman) from the Athenian Acropolis Greek 520-510 BCE Parian Marble that I photographed at "The Greeks" exhibit displayed at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.  Votive statue of Kore or Demeter from the sanctuary at Casaletto, Roman, end of 4th or beginning of 3rd century BCE, that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum of Rome. Another votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian, Yet another votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia Roman 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian, Head of Demeter or Kore, Greek, made in Sicily 350-300 BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California, Fragment of the Great Eleusinian Relief, Roman copy from the Augustan period 27 BCE-14 CE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in new York, Demeter and Persephone Terracotta from Myrina, 100 BCE, that I photographed at the British Museum, Roman sarcophagus depicting Hades abduction of Persephone, Roman, 200-220 CE that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1621-22), another breathtaking sculpture at the Galleria Borghese in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Alvesgaspar (digitally edited to enhance sculptural details).

: Onyx cameo fragment thought to depict an episode from the story of Proserpine and Pluto, Roman, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Closeup of a  votive Kore (Statue of a Young Woman) from the Athenian Acropolis Greek 520-510 BCE Parian Marble that I photographed at "The Greeks" exhibit displayed at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois

Votive statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian

Votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian

Votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian

Votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian

Votive statue of Kore or Demeter from the sanctuary at Casaletto, Roman, end of 4th or beginning of 3rd century BCE, that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum of Rome

Fragment of the Great Eleusinian Relief, Roman copy from the Augustan period 27 BCE-14 CE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Demeter and Persephone Terracotta from Myrina, 100 BCE, that I photographed at the British Museum

Roman sarcophagus depicting Hades abduction of Persephone, Roman, 200-220 CE that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1621-22), another breathtaking sculpture at the Galleria Borghese in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Alvesgaspar (digitally edited to enhance sculptural details).

Head of Demeter or Kore, Greek, made in Sicily 350-300 BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Realism in Roman miniatures

The Romans favored bronze and marble above all else for their finest work and loved miniatures.  By the mid-1st century CE, Roman sculptors began to move away from emulating their Etruscan and Greek predecessors and sought to capture and create optical effects of light and shade for greater realism.  This trend may well have developed from the tradition of keeping realistic wax funeral masks of deceased family members in the ancestral home.  Although few bronze examples have survived due to a high demand for reuse of the alloy, those that did, like this poignant figurine, portrayed a people who were realistically scarred, wrinkled, or plump, like this healthy-appearing little girl.

Sadly (from my viewpoint anyway), towards the end of the Empire, the influence of art from the eastern Mediterranean resulted in figural sculpture with enlarged heads, vacantly staring eyes, and out-of-proportion torsos and limbs such as those seen in works portraying the emperor Constantine.

In his excellent article on Roman art in the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Mark Cartwright points out, "Perhaps, though, their greatest contribution to world art was the fostering of the idea that the appreciation of art for its own sake was a fine thing and that to possess art objects or even a collection was a real badge of one’s cultural sophistication. In addition, even for those who could not afford their own art, there was the provision of public art galleries. Art was no longer the exclusive domain of the rich, art was for anyone and everyone. The Romans, like no other culture before them, were champions of art as a popular, affordable, and accessible means of expressing and communicating the human spirit."

Read his full article at:

Image: Bronze statuette of a girl holding a puppy, Greek or Roman, 1st century BCE – 2nd century CE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Furniture applique in the Greco-Roman world

 Little wood survives from ancient Greek and Roman furniture, although ancient texts tell us woods used for such purpose were maple, oak, beech, yew, and willow. Pieces were assembled using mortise-and-tenon joinery, held together with lashings, pegs, metal nails, and glue. Wood was shaped by carving, steam treatment, and the lathe, and furniture is known to have been decorated with ivory, tortoise shell, glass, gold, or bronze attachments similar to this example.  Furniture was also veneered with expensive types of wood in order to make the object appear more costly, although not as elaborate as palatial furnishings in the Near East.

The sella, or stool or chair, was the most common type of seating in the Roman period, probably because of its easy portability. Although those of the poor were surely plain, the wealthy had access to precious woods, ornamented with inlay, metal fittings, ivory, and silver and gold leaf. Bronze sellae from Herculaneum were square in form and had straight legs, decorative stretchers, and a dished seat. The sella curulis, or folding stool, was an important indicator of power in the Roman period. There were sellae resembling both stools and chairs that folded in a scissor fashion to facilitate transport.

A chair with a back, sometimes crafted of wickerwork, was known as a cathedra.  Some scholars think it was a later version of the Greek klismos although others propose it was a type of chair associated primarily with women.  Roman artwork shows it being used in a classroom setting with the tutor ensconced in a cathedra, the seat of power, while pupils sit around him.  A chair with both a back and armrests was termed a solium in Latin and were equivalent to the Greek thronos. A type of of solium resting upon a cylindrical or conical base is thought to have been derived from Etruscan prototypes.

Roman couches, some with elaborate bronze fittings were used for both sleeping and dining. The two types might be used interchangeably even in richer households, and it is not always easy to differentiate between sleeping and dining furniture. The most common type of Roman bed took the form of a three-sided, open rectangular box, with the fourth (long) side of the bed open for access. While some beds were framed with boards, others had slanted structures at the ends, called fulcra, to better accommodate pillows. The fulcra of elaborate dining couches also often had sumptuous decorative attachments featuring ivory, bronze, copper, gold or silver ornamentation.

The subselium was an elongated bench for two or more people and were considered to be “seats of the humble.” They were used in peasant houses, farms, and bathhouses but also found in lecture halls, in the vestibules of temples, and served as the seats of senators and judges. Roman benches, like their Greek precedents, were practical for the seating of large groups of people and were common in theaters, amphitheaters, odeons and auctions. The scamnum, related to the subsellium but smaller, was used as both a bench and a footstool.

Applique with Scylla Greek possibly from South Italy 300 BCE Silver and Gold that I photographed at the Getty Villa

Roman applique of a winged sphinx Byzantine Period courtesy of the Getty Villa

Applique with two men in togas Roman 50-75 CE Bronze that I photographed at the Getty Villa. 

Box Mirror Applique with Eros and Psyche in Relief Greek 4th century BCE Bronze that I photographed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Applique of Youth Wearing a Lion Skin possibly Eros Greek 100 BCE that I photographed at the Getty Villa

 Ivory or bone furniture fragment Etruscan 300-100 BCE that I photographed at the Getty Villa

Applique with Medusa Greek 300-275 BCE Silver and Gold that I photographed at the Getty Villa

Bacchus Applique from a Triclinium Couch Roman Bronze 1st century CE that I photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibit" at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington.

Applique of Ceres or Juno from furniture or a chariot Roman 50-75 CE courtesy of the Getty Villa

Etruscan applique of Kore from Cerveteri courtesy of the Getty Villa

Applique of Roma or Virtus from furniture or a chariot Roman 50-75 CE courtesy of the Getty Villa

Greek or Roman bronze relief of the head of a woman 3rd–1st century BCE or 4th century CE possibly used as an applique for a piece of furniture courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art